The history of the medieval crusades, at least at a very minimal level, is well known to most people. When we think of the crusades, most of us probably imagine an army of pious Christian knights full of religious zeal going to win back the holy land. There are a few issues with this notion. One is that the crusaders were looking to achieve far more than just pleasing God. While many, especially the common people, were motivated by the pope’s promises that their sins would be forgiven, this religious motive was accompanied by a healthy dose of greed. They sought after plunder, land and power. There is no better example of this than the Fourth Crusade.
Once Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to recapture the Holy Land, crusaders began to slowly organize across Europe. Past crusades had gone overland, but that route was long and dangerous. Instead they would try to go by sea, so they sent envoys to Venice, the great seafaring republic, to organize transportation. Venice agreed to help. They would cease all of their trading voyages for two years to devote all of the city’s energies to transporting and supplying the crusade. But they would do it only for a hefty price. It was one of the most expensive contracts in medieval Europe.
In 1202, as most of the crusading army gathered at Venice, things were shaping up to be a disaster. The contract had specified that the army would number some 33,000 men. The actual number who arrived was closer to a third of that. Worse still, the crusaders didn’t even have the money to pay Venice, and the Venetians were not interested in doing them any favors. As the crusaders arrived, the Venetians dropped them off on a small barren island in the lagoon. It was clear that they weren’t getting off until the cutthroat merchants of Venice got their money.
Venetians Taking the Cross
Venice wanted to be paid, and it became apparent that a negotiation was necessary. Eventually the crusaders and Venetians came to an agreement. Dandelo, the Doge, or Duke of Venice, took the sign of the cross and went on crusade, setting an example for his fellow citizens. However, as the crusade finally set out, they invaded not Muslim lands, but Christian. The crusaders had agreed to pay their debts by attacking Venice’s enemies in surrounding lands. The army of Christendom had been coerced into doing the will of the Venetians. When the Pope received word of what was going on, he was furious. He sent letters threatening, and eventually declaring, the entire crusade excommunicated for attacking fellow Christians. But the leaders of the crusade just did what they pleased, and carefully kept this to themselves, for fear of how the common people would react.
While they wintered in their newly conquered lands, the crusaders received an interesting proposal. A young noble from Constantinople, a son of a recently deposed Byzantine emperor, asked their help in restoring him to his throne. He offered, in exchange, to provide them with gold and silver and send knights to help conquer the Holy land, once he was restored to his kingdom. His promises were ridiculous, as anyone who understood the Byzantine empire would have understood. But since he had no kingdom, he was willing to promise anything for the chance of aid. The crusade was short on funds, and Doge Dandelo gave enthusiastic support for the proposal, so they accepted. For the chance of money and influence, the crusade was going to invade an Orthodox Christian empire.
The Crusaders Besieging Constantinople
There ensued in Constantinople a series of complex negotiations and conflicts, both political and military. There were many twists and turns in the story, and desperate and fascinating battles fought. But to summarize the tale, the crusaders eventually laid siege to Constantinople in 1203. They captured the city and put the pretender on the throne as Alexios IV. But the young man discovered that promises are much harder to keep than to make. He was trying to balance the hostile factions in the empire, as well the crusaders who wished to hold in to his word, when a nobleman rose against him, slew him in his palace and was crowned Alexios V. This led to the crusaders laying siege to Constantinople again in 1204. When they regained the city after a hard fought battle, they did not treat it as kindly as the year before. This time the soldiers were let loose to plunder and destroy. One historian wrote:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. … Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians.1
The Byzantine empire was divided up between the crusading forces, and a Latin emperor set up in its place. Although the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople some decades later, Christendom in the east had been dealt a death blow by other Christians. The Byzantines were rendered easy pray for the expanding Turks by the greed of the Fourth Crusade.
Sir Steven Runciman, a historian of the crusades, wrote, “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”2 While that is hyperbole, the Fourth Crusade was certainly a dark blot on the history of medieval Europe. The original mission of the Crusade was completely reversed. It was totally co-opted by the Venetians and was used as a weapon against their enemies. The opportunistic leaders abandoned any pretense of fighting the Muslims, and instead attacked Orthodox Christians. Although it gained wealth for those involved, the victory was short lived. They left the Byzantine Empire crippled and weakened, easy prey for the Turks. The wickedness of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates how far the medieval Catholic church had strayed from true Christianity.
1. Byzantium and Europe by Speros Vryonis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967) p. 152. 2. A History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) vol 3, p. 130.
The name of Rome is fearsome in military history. Over the centuries, the Roman legions propelled a small city along the Tiber to rule the entire known Western world. Yet there was one man, more than anyone else, whose name sent shivers through the Romans – Hannibal Barca. Hannibal, a Carthaginian from North Africa, was the most skilled and successful enemy that Rome ever faced. He successfully took an army of thousands of men, along with some elephants, on the very difficult journey across the Alps. He then stayed in Italy for nearly 15 years, with little significant help from Carthage, and defeated every Roman army he faced in a major battle. Although he eventually was recalled to defend Carthage and defeated in battle, he may have come closer than anyone to destroying the Roman Republic. How did he do it? How did he outwit so many Roman commanders? The answers shed light on his impressive achievements, and teach leadership lessons for the present day.
The Battle of Zama
Without a doubt, Hannibal was a very bold soldier. Many of his greatest victories would have been impossible without it. He was not rash, but he knew that if he risked nothing, he would gain nothing. Consider his famous crossing of the Alps. The Alps have been crossed by armies many times throughout history, but never in the way Hannibal did it. He was the first general to take a foreign army across them, that was not from the area and familiar with the terrain. Before the era of maps, this is a shocking achievement. It is very likely that not one of his officers or soldiers had ever crossed the Alps before. It took incredible courage to enter very difficult and unmapped terrain, filled with unknown and hostile tribes, with the only thing waiting for him on the other side being the enemy’s country guarded by the Roman army – the best soldiers in the world. That shows his grit, determination, and fearlessness in the face of mighty obstacles.
2. Always Learning
Often, Hannibal’s bold deeds were not reckless because he had spent time in study and preparation. His Alps crossing was likely conceived years earlier. Much time was spent laying the ground work in gaining knowledge and building relationships before the daring strike. When a foreigner came through Hannibal’s camp, he interviewed them and sought to learn not just the geography of the lands that he had never visited, but their history, customs and culture. Any of this information could prove critical at the proper time. While on campaign, he would disguise himself and travel the countryside, gleaning first hand information from the inhabitants.
As a fruit of all this study, Hannibal was able to remain fresh, fluid and innovative in his tactics. At one point, he did not seek to storm Rome, when many believed he had an opportunity to, because he did not think the time was right. But at a later moment he marched to just outside the city, to threaten the city and relieve pressure from another point. He used seals captured from Romans to send forged messages to Roman units, giving them false orders that suited his purposes. And he used his knowledge of specific enemy commanders against them, exploiting their own personal weaknesses to entice them into a tactical position where he could destroy them.
A Carthaginian Coin which may depict Hannibal
3. Understanding People
One key to Hannibal’s success was his ability to gain and retain the trust of his troops. Although he was almost completely cut off from support or reinforcement from Carthage for nearly a decade and a half, not once did his troops mutiny against him. He won their love and respect. Many of the ways that he did this were simple things. He made sure, whenever possible, that his men were well fed going into battle. He payed close attention to their attitude, and was ready to give encouragement or an inspiring speech if he saw their spirits flagging. He set rewards clearly before them if they were victorious, inspiring to fight their hardest. Not long after he arrived in Italy, he promised his army their choice of land or money once Italy was won, and promised that slaves who followed their masters into battle would be given their freedom, and that their masters would receive two other slaves to replace them.
Hannibal also was skilled in making allies. His goal in Italy was to break away Rome’s allies and win them over to the fight against Rome. It took great wisdom to win these political victories. Although he did not win enough allies to gain the victory, he always had allied troops fighting with him. When he left Italy after more than a decade, virtually all of his original army was gone. They had been replaced, in large part, by allied recruits, who fought faithfully under him.
Hannibal’s Elephants Crossing the Rhine River
4. Brilliant Tactics
Last but not least, Hannibal beat the long odds against him, and was victorious for so long against the Romans, because he had a brilliant mind for tactics. He used the terrain and the weaknesses of the enemy to defeat the superior Roman forces. Over and over again, he was able to find the enemy’s weakest point, and throw his strongest forces against it to win the day. His battles are famous in world history, and for good reason. From Lake Trasimene, where in an unparalleled feat he hid his entire army and ambushed the Romans, to Cannae, where he executed a double envelopment of the Romans opposing him, a feat which generations of generals have tried to replicate.
For years Hannibal sustained a war effort alone, with very little significant support, raising his own finances and new recruits in an enemies country, while holding the affections of his allies and seeking to bring more nations to his side. Although Carthage eventually fell to Rome, there is much that we can learn from his struggle, and his years of wise leadership in the face of incredible adversity.
Next week millions of Americans will watch a total solar eclipse. Now they are a fascinating phenomenon, but in ancient times they were seen as having a much larger impact. At one point one even stopped a battle!
In the last issue, we considered the life of Latimer. We turn now to the life of Ridley, Latimer’s faithful companion at the stake, and the man to whom Latimer addressed his final sermon, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.” In this issue, we shall see how Master Ridley did indeed stand firm in the fire and “play the man.” But first we will consider Ridley’s background and the steps that brought him to the fire.
Nicholas Ridley was born in 1500 in the extreme north of England, very near the Scottish border. The Ridleys were an ancient house of knights whose bravery was known and admired throughout the border country. They could meet an enemy with calm courage, keep their heads in the heat of battle, and endure pain without flinching. These qualities would be seen in Nicholas Ridley, but he was a knight of a different kind, a knight who wielded the Sword of Truth with unflinching courage. He was resolved to win the victory, though he must die an agonizing death.
Like Latimer, the man who became his close friend and example, Nicholas Ridley went to Cambridge University where he came into contact with other young students like John Rogers, Thomas Bilney, John Bradford, and William Tyndale. These became known as the “Scripture men,” and they met in the White Horse Inn to study and discuss the Bible.
Since the Ridley family was a family of influence and wealth, they sent Nicholas to the continent to study. Thus, unlike the other English Reformers, Nicholas Ridley had experience in the University of Paris. Among the Doctors of the Sorbonne, Ridley was sickened and saddened by the lack of knowledge of Scripture. He wearied of reading the Medieval Scholastics and longed for the pure fountain of God’s truth. The steps of Ridley’s conversion are not known. He was not converted in a moment, like Hugh Latimer or Saul of Tarsus. His conversion was slow, gradual, but just as sure. We know from his writings that he began, in the halls and gardens of Cambridge, to commit large sections of Scripture to memory. What the sword was to the ancient house of Ridley, the Bible was to be to Nicholas.
The English Reformation did not gush forth from the earth like a geyser. Rather it grew slowly and steadily, just as the melting snow on a mountainside descends into the valleys where it forms creeks, then streams, then a mighty river that rolls silently and slowly along with resistless power. So grew the English Reformation.
A brief discussion needs to be made of the relative usefulness of Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, the three great martyrs of Mary’s reign. Cranmer was a wise leader who used his gentle ways to win friends to the cause of Reform. Latimer was an eloquent speaker who used his tongue to proclaim verbally the truth of God. Ridley was a careful writer who used his pen to write clearly the defense of the Reformed Cause. Though Ridley was the junior of the three men, the other two leaned upon his writing.
The great question at stake in the English Reformation was the question of Transubstantiation. For a long time, even Cranmer held to the belief that, somehow, the Real Presence of Christ must be in the elements. It was not an easy thing for a Bishop of the church to challenge and overturn centuries of tradition. It was Ridley whose masterful examination of the subject convinced Cranmer and Latimer that the Mass must be entirely rejected, not only as unbiblical, but also as blasphemous, idolatrous, and dangerous. Ridley read the continental Reformers like Zwingli, and he drew on Zwingli’s writing to form his own position.
Nicholas Ridley was recognized by his friends as the intellectual leader of the English Reformation. He had a mind that retained all it was given, and his memory was remarkable. He studied for several hours each day and was an active reader whose conversation delighted and edified all that came to stay with him in his parsonage. He was a warm and generous host, and nobody ever came away from his home without being edified by the friendship.
Along with Latimer and Cranmer, Ridley knew that he would not long survive Mary’s reign. After the death of Edward VI, Ridley gave strong support to the coronation of Lady Jane Grey. When she and her young husband went to the block, Ridley was a marked man from the very start of Mary’s reign. Notwithstanding his knowledge of her hatred of him, Ridley went to greet Mary and even offered to serve her and hold services for the royal court. This request was turned down.
For his support of Lady Jane Grey, Nicholas Ridley was arrested on the charge of treason, but the charge was changed to a religious one and he was eventually tried and executed for heresy. Long debates failed to move him an inch from his position. Like his ancestors, Ridley would not flinch in the public arena, and many intellectual lances were shattered against his shield. When the formal trial was made, Ridley had the audacity to put his cap on his head whenever the Pope was mentioned. When Ridley was charged with denying the validity of the Mass, he replied calmly and clearly, “Christ made one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, neither can any man reiterate that sacrifice of His.” So the debates continued. John Foxe, who was a personal friend of Ridley’s and served under him as a deacon, said that, in spite of the most earnest arguments of the Papists, “nevertheless Ridley was ever talking things not pleasant to their ears.”
On the day of his execution, Nicholas Ridley dressed in his best attire. While Latimer wore a plain and simple gown, Ridley dressed in a black gown trimmed with fur and velvet. This was not to be proud or showy. Ridley was from an ancient house of knights, and he was going out to his final victory. While Latimer tottered because of age and infirmity, Ridley walked firmly and boldly to the stake. When questioned if he would recant, Ridley said, “So long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny my Lord Christ and His known truth.”
Ridley and Latimer are martyred
Ridley then gave away all his fine garments and stood in a plain undergarment. As the smith chained him to the stake, Ridley said, “Good fellow, knock it hard, for the flesh will have its way.” Nicholas Ridley did not want the intense pain to make him flee the stake. The hour of his final battle had come. As the faggot was lit and laid at the feet of the two men, there was perfect silence in the air as the tension mounted. As the flames began to leap upward, Latimer broke the tense silence with those immortal words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man.”
As the fire blazed up, the wind blew the fire to the side of “Old Father Latimer.” Latimer looked upward and said peacefully, “Father of heaven, receive my soul.” He soon died with little apparent pain. It would not be so with Ridley. He would indeed have need to “play the man.” The wind blew the fire hard to Latimer’s side, and the fire on Ridley’s side was badly made. The green wood on top would not catch fire, but the wood at the bottom burned fiercely. While Ridley’s face and body were unharmed, his legs were almost burned away. All this time, his shirt was not even singed. He involuntarily leaped up and down in the fire as the burning flesh and muscles reacted to the pain, but he would not utter a scream or cry of reproach. John Foxe says, “Even in this torment, he did not forget to call on God, saying ‘Lord, have mercy on me.’” A relative of Ridley’s tried to relieve his agony and piled more wood on the fire. This only worsened the problem, and Ridley suffered on, but he “played the man.”
Finally, one of the guards realized the problem and reached forward with the hook at the end of his halberd, pulling away the topmost wood. The fire blazed upward through the wood. Ridley cried out in Latin the words he had learned long ago, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” But then, as though he remembered that he was an Englishman, and that the Bible was now in the hands of the common man, he repeated the prayer in his native tongue, “Lord, receive my spirit.”
The candle that was lit by Latimer and Ridley that day is still burning brightly. If you hold an English Bible in your hands, if you sing hymns from an English hymnal, if you worship God in Spirit and Truth, then you owe these men a debt of gratitude. Truly, they did light a candle that has never gone out. That shining candle is now entrusted to us. Don’t let it be extinguished. Don’t compromise the Word of God. Don’t give up the truth for which these men died. Even if you too must burn for it, remember Master Ridley and “play the man.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne