European Warfare in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

England during and after William the Conqueror

Following William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings he marched directly to the capital, London, and in a very short period established his rule over the entire kingdom. The death of Harold at Hastings was important as it meant that there was nobody to rally support for rebellion, but even more significant was the political and military administration that William quickly put into place. He also rewarded all those who were faithful to him and those who had distinguished themselves in the conquest with lands, titles, and lordships—his “companions,” faithful to him as their leader, and obligated to him for their titles and land. But when William died in 1087, there was some confusion over which of his three sons should rule over England and Normandy. Strangely, at least to modern historians, William had named his eldest son, Robert, as Duke of Normandy and his second son, William Rufus, as King of England. Why had he split his holdings? And why had he given his eldest son the Duchy of Normandy and his second son the Kingdom of England, which, if not a more important political entity, was certainly one more independent from the French crown? Is it possible, as some historians assert, that he saw in William Rufus a stronger leader than Robert? It is an interesting question, but one that is largely unimportant as, within a few years, it turned out that the strongest of all three of William’s sons was actually his youngest son, Henry. First, Henry took over the English throne when William was killed in a hunting accident. He then defeated his brother Robert at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1109 and took over the Duchy of Normandy. Later, he proved his military prowess and his claim to his father’s territories by defeating his nephew, William of Clito (Robert’s son), at the Battle of Bremûle, despite the presence of the French king, Louis VI, in support of William. He also put down an uprising among his English nobles at the Battle of Northallerton in 1138 (also known as the Battle of the Standard).

How important was Concept of Divine Right in the Middle Ages?

The concept of the “divine right” to rule might have prevented the latter conflict, as it had so often kept the French king from noble uprisings, but it had never been declared in England. Nor was it ever acknowledged. As a result, almost every English king during the Middle Ages was forced to contend with baronial revolts and civil war. The earliest, and perhaps most militarily significant of these, came at the death of Henry I when a dispute arose over who would succeed him. Henry’s named heir, his nephew Stephen, was immediately opposed by Henry’s daughter, Mathilda, who had a number of English noble supporters. What resulted was a devastating civil war that lasted from 1139 to 1153. A second example of this type of baronial chaos occurred in 1215 during the reign of King John when
the lords of England forced their monarch to sign the Magna Carta, which awarded them certain powers over the king, a move provoked by John’s abuse of taxation and the loss of most of the English lands in France. A third example was during the reign of John’s son, Henry III, who, despite surviving an earnest effort to unseat him by one of his lords, Simon de Montfort, was forced to sign away more of his powers to the nobles in the various amended versions of the Magna Carta that appeared frequently throughout his long reign. Eventually this included the establishment of the first English parliament. Put simply, without the “divine right” to rule provision of the French kings, English kings were forced to prove their military leadership. The strong military leaders, such as Henry I, Henry II, and Edward I, were able to ensure peace at home and were successful abroad; while the weak military leaders, like Stephen, John, Henry III, or Edward II, suffered internal uprisings at home and, generally, losses overseas.

England and France

Because of the protection afforded by the English Channel, when the English were defeated by foreign powers—most often by the French—the losses were usually at the expense of their holdings on the continent. A curious situation arose when William the Conquerer became king of England. As he was also Duke of Normandy he was obligated to do homage to the king of France for those lands. Perhaps this is why William separated the two holdings between his eldest sons at his death. But the two were reunited by his third son, Henry I, at the turn of the twelfth century. Furthermore, with the succession of Henry II to the English throne after the death of Stephen—the irony of this being that Henry II was the son of Mathilda, Stephen’s foe throughout almost his entire reign—the County of Anjou in France was also added to the English royal holdings, and with Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, so too was her inheritance, the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony and the counties of Ponthieu and Poitou. This meant that when their son, Richard the Lionheart, became king of England in 1089, he held more land in France than all of the other French nobles combined, and certainly more than the king Philip Augustus of France. Of course, this led to the difficulties between those two kings on the Third Crusade, as already discussed, and to Philip attacking these lands after he had returned from the Holy Land. Richard, on his return from the crusades and from his imprisonment by the duke of Austria, spent the rest of his life defending his French holdings. He died in 1099 after being shot by a crossbow during one of these wars. It was John, Richard’s brother and successor, who lost them in 1214 when his army was soundly defeated at the Battle of Bouvines by Philip Augustus at the head of a force that included the emperor Otto IV of Germany as well as many of the nobles of France, the Low Countries, and Germany. Philip’s impressive victory led to the confiscation of all of the other English lands in France, except for Gascony, and for the next century there was relative peace between the two kingdoms. Yet this was not to be the last Anglo-French war, as the Hundred Years War would prove.

Italy and the Holy Roman Empire

During the High Middle Ages, despite being legally part of the Holy Roman Empire, Italians frequently sought self-rule, especially after the tenth century when the towns of northern and central Italy became more populous and wealthier. Moreover, only when a Holy Roman Emperor could guarantee the security of his throne would he venture south to Italy to put down any rebellion—a rare occurrence as they usually lacked any political security because of the fact that they were elected, sometimes by only the slimmest of majorities. To travel to Italy was also expensive, long, and difficult and, once on the other side of the Alps, the return was equally expensive, long, and difficult. On the other hand, Italian cities generally brought huge amounts of taxes into the Imperial coffers, so if an emperor could march into Italy and impose, or reimpose, his authority, it might turn out to be a profitable military endeavor. Nor was it usually too difficult to put down an Italian rebellion once the Germans were through the Alps as any soldiers the Italians could muster or pay for generally lost to the more professional, more experienced, more skilled, better led, and better armed and armored German soldiers.

The Holy Roman Emperors and their goal to make Italy part of the Empire

Thus, much of the medieval history of the Holy Roman Empire and Italy is intertwined, especially during the High Middle Ages. During this period some of the strongest emperors ruled, and, almost always when they did, a German army could be found south of the Alps. The best example of this may be Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1122–1190, Emperor 1142–1190). By the time Frederick had been designated as the successor of Emperor Conrad III in 1142, he was an experienced military commander. It may in fact have been the military leadership he showed in 1146 in putting down the insurrection of Duke Conrad of Zähringen on behalf of Conrad III that led to his being recognized as his successor, despite having no direct familial ties to him. This same military leadership may also have been the reason for his unanimous election, a rare event in medieval German politics. Because of the strength and the cohesion of his political control in Germany, in 1154 Frederick Barbarossa led his first campaign south of the Alps into Italy. It had been a while since the Italians had faced a military threat from the north. Neither of Frederick’s two predecessors, Lothair II and Conrad III, had proven strong enough to pursue any more than the most tenuous diplomatic connections with the inhabitants of Italy, leaving them, especially those in the northern and central towns, to virtually rule themselves. However, it was not only allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire that had waned during this period; the collection of taxes and other duties had almost completely ceased, while the passes through the Alps had become so infested with bands of outlaws, that few traders, pilgrims, churchmen, or other travelers could pass through them without being harassed to pay for protection. By 1154 Frederick certainly wanted to solve these problems, bring Italy back into union with the rest of the Holy Roman Empire, clear up the lawlessness of the Alpine passes, and collect the outstanding taxes. If he thought he could do all of this, however, then his first expedition into Italy must be judged a failure, for although he was able to march his armies all the way to Rome, reaching there in the middle of 1155, he did not bring the rebellious forces in the north to heel, especially not the Milanese or their allies. Nor could he even bring peace among the factions in Rome; although he did succeed in being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV, on 18 June, before returning to Germany. That the town of Milan led this rebellion is not surprising when one realizes that its wealth was derived largely from its control of most of the Alpine passes—anyone who wished to travel along those treacherous routes had to pass through Milan. This meant that the town was almost always teeming with pilgrims and traders, who spent large amounts on housing, transportation, guides, guards, and victuals from the Milanese merchants. This wealth translated, as it often did elsewhere in the Middle Ages, into a desire for sovereignty. Frequently, this put the Milanese at odds with their German lords. Before Frederick Barbarossa, perhaps the most famous case was the town leadership’s opposition to Emperor Henry IV during the socalled Investiture Controversy. In addition, the Milanese always seem to have been able to force other towns in northern and central Italy to join their rebellions, even those that would have been better off had they sided with Milan’s opponents or, at least, remained neutral. When Barbarossa returned north in 1155, having failed to secure Milan’s subjugation, his German barons took this as a sign of weakness, and the recently crowned Holy Roman Emperor was suddenly faced with having to quell dissent among them, especially by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and, from 1156, Bavaria. Eventually, through diplomatic as well as military means, Frederick was able to placate or defeat all his adversaries, and by 1158 this had resulted in an even stronger military presence in Germany and a renewed desire to return to Italy. Frederick’s second Italian campaign was far more successful than his first had been. Among his numerous early victories, the greatest undoubtedly was the capture of Milan, which fell to Imperial forces on 7 September 1158 after a short siege. Other rebellious towns fell quickly into line. However, they would not stay that way for long. The premature death of Pope Adrian IV, whose papacy had supported Barbarossa, forced Frederick to involve himself in a prolonged fight over papal succession. This distraction brought further insurrection, and the emperor had to fight numerous engagements against almost all of the towns in northern Italy and Lombardy, including, again, Milan. This time it was not until March 1162 that Milan once more fell to German troops.

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his war with the Lombard League

Once Frederick returned to Germany, Milan and most of the rest of Italy again declared their freedom, forcing the emperor’s third expedition south of the Alps in 1163. On this occasion, his army faced a new alliance of earlier enemies, the Lombard League. The Lombard League had been formed initially by the smaller towns of Verona, Vicenza, and Padua, but soon more substantial allies joined: Venice, Constantinople, and Sicily. In the beginning, Milan stayed out of the League, although probably more out of fatigue than any disagreement with its anti-Imperialist purpose. Facing the unity and military strength of the Lombard League, Frederick’s 1163 campaign failed, as did his fourth campaign in 1166. In this latter expedition, it was not only the Italians who defeated the invading Germans, but also disease, in particular fever, which almost annihilated them. Seeing their success, the Milanese joined the League. Perhaps because of the setbacks of his last two Italian campaigns, Frederick Barbarossa did not campaign an army in Italy again until 1174, when he went there to prevent an alliance between the Lombard League and Pope Alexander III from forming. Although never a friend or supporter of Frederick, since he was named pope in 1159, Alexander had remained neutral in the affairs of northern Italy. In 1174 he began to entertain the Lombard League’s petitions for alliance, and with it, obviously, papal approval for their rebellion. Such an arrangement was not in Frederick’s interest, and he was determined to stop it. When he was unable to do so diplomatically, he began a new campaign. From 1174 to 1176 Frederick journeyed around Italy, trying his best, though in vain, to defeat the Lombard League. By 1176 he had become frustrated at the lack of progress he had made: the Italians had not been pacified, nor had the pope backed down in his support of them. He pressed on with his campaign, but in doing so he suffered perhaps his greatest defeat on 29 May when a combined force of Milanese, Brescians, and Veronese soldiers crushed a smaller German army at the Battle of Legnano, nearly killing the emperor in the fighting. By October 1176 Frederick was forced to sign the Treaty of Anagni with Alexander III, recognizing him as pope and giving him a large number of concessions. And the following May, Frederick signed the Treaty of Venice, making a truce with the Lombard League and the Kingdom of Sicily. Over the next few years, he was forced to become more involved in affairs in Germany. Another campaign through the Alps was, at least for the moment, unthinkable, and in June 1183 the emperor once more made peace with the Lombard League, in the Treaty of Constance, which granted nearly complete sovereignty to its members. Although Frederick and some of his successors would return to Italy, most notably Frederick II (Emperor 1212–1250), they were never able to break the desire for independence among those towns that had experienced this self-governance.

Did the conflict in Europe end or did it enter a new phase?

Peace was not to be had in Italy, however. Once the common enemy in the Holy Roman Emperor had been pacified, the Italians settled into an almost constant state of civil war. Two parties had formed in the wars with Frederick Barbarossa, the Ghibellines—who supported the emperor—and the Guelfs—who supported the pope. After the turn of the thirteenth century, divisions along these party lines became fierce, splitting regions, cities, and people. Soon Guelf cities opposed Ghibelline cities and vice versa, and this opposition often led to warfare. One of the most violent of these conflicts was the decade-long war fought between Florence (Guelf) and Siena (Ghibelline) from 1250 to 1260. Finally, after several smaller expeditions against each other had failed to bring any conclusion to their
hostility, the Battle of Montaperti was fought, and the Sienese defeated the larger Florentine forces. A very precarious peace followed, but later in the century war broke out once more, but this time the Florentines defeated their Sienese opponents in 1289 at the battles of Campaldino and Caprona. But this victory over the Imperial supporters did not satisfy the Florentines, and in 1300 they divided into the Black Guelfs—those who continued to support the pope—and the White Guelfs—those who sought self-rule. Fighting even broke out in the streets. War had become endemic to Italy with perhaps the only unified resolve was the idea that future wars were to be fought not by Italian citizens but by paid soldiers from outside Italy, the condottieri.


Oh, Just History things ...!

Leave a Reply