Other History Topics

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.

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.

The Battle of Agincourt – a summary

On the 25th October 1415, the English king Henry V celebrated a major victory in the Hundred Years War when he defeated the numerically superior French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Famous for its use of English and Welsh longbowmen, the battle is also falsely claimed to provide the origin for the so-called ‘two finger salute’, the V sign that is used as an offensive gesture in England.

Having landed in northern France on the 13th August, Henry sought to regain control of lands that had once come under the rule of the English kings. However, the time taken to capture the town of Harfleur meant that Henry was not able to mount an effective attack on the French. Instead the English marched to Calais as a ‘show of force’, but were shadowed by the French who continued to raise an army en-route. By the 24th October both armies had gathered at Agincourt, and in the morning of the 25th Henry began the battle.

Henry’s archers launched an initial volley that incapacitated many of the French army’s horses and forward troops. As well as struggling to find a way through this mass and across the muddy field that separated them from the English, the French cavalry was unable to advance efficiently due to stakes driven into the ground to protect the English archers. The French advance became more and more densely packed, making the forward French knights less and less able to fight efficiently. Over 8,000 French troops are estimated to have been killed in the battle. The English army’s losses were less than 500.

Battle of the Herrings fought between France and England

On the 12th February 1429, the curiously-named Battle of the Herrings was fought between French and English forces near the village of Rouvray in France. One of numerous clashes during the Hundred Years War, it ended in English victory. However, Joan of Arc’s prediction of the French defeat is said to have contributed greatly to her securing a visit to the French Dauphin Charles VII.

On the 12th October 1428 the English besieged the city of Orléans, but by the end of January were in need of additional supplies. A convoy of “some 300 carts and wagons” containing various weapons was sent in response. In addition, as the troops would soon be observing Lent when Christians abstain from eating meat, it also included barrels of herrings.

The convoy met a large force of 3,000-4,000 French and Scottish troops led by Charles de Bourbon, Count of Clermont, outside the village of Rouvray. The English arranged their carts into a defensive wagon fort, with sharpened stakes similar to those used at the Battle of Agincourt around the perimeter. Unable to use their cavalry, the French launched a gunpowder artillery bombardment, but were forced to abandon this after the Scots advanced prematurely. The English seized the opportunity for a counter-attack and forced them to retreat.

At the same time Joan of Arc was attempting to persuade Robert de Baudricourt help her visit the French dauphin at Chinon. Apparently she told him of the terrible defeat near Orléans, something that was only confirmed several days later. De Baudricourt felt Joan must have experienced divine help to know this, so agreed to help her.

The Fall of Constantinople

On the 29th May 1453 the troops of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed II successfully took control of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The capture of the city effectively brought the Roman Empire to an end and, for many historians, also marks the end of the medieval period.

The Ottomans began their siege of the city on the 6th April, but their enormous cannon was unable to break the walls and their ships were unable to cross the defensive chain that protected the Golden Horn. Even attempts to dig tunnels and lay mines to blow up the walls failed, because the Byzantines intercepted the tunnels before they were completed.

Despite these setbacks for the Ottomans, the continuing siege slowly weakened the resolve of Constantinople’s inhabitants. A Greek legend even says that on the 26th May, as the Ottomans began to plan their final offensive, the Holy Spirit left the Hagia Sophia under cover of a strange fog that had descended on the city.

Around midnight on the night of the 28th to 29th May, the first Ottoman troops attacked the city. Three waves of increasingly experienced troops made only limited progress but when Giustiniani, the commander of the Byzantine troops, was mortally wounded the city’s defence quickly began to collapse. When a Turkish flag was raised over the northern Kerkoporta Gate, the defence crumbled.

Three days of looting followed, although some Greeks managed to leave the city and move west. The knowledge and ancient documents they brought with them helped to fuel the Renaissance.