During the Middle Ages, the knights were the premiere warriors in the European continent, if not the entire world. Battles were won and lost by a relatively small number of knights in complete suits of armor. Although there were other troops on the field, often many of them, in many battles they did not play a decisive role. Yet there was one nearly forgotten group of peasants in the 15th century that defeated knights over and over again – the Hussites. These common folk of Bohemia, modern Czech Republic, were followers of the martyered John Hus, and ideological predecessors of the Protestant Reformation.
The most effective, and famous, commander of the Hussites was Jan Zizka. Today he is something of a national hero for the Czechs, and there is a massive statue of him on Vitkov Hill, the site of one of his greatest victories, overlooking the city of Prague. Zizka had a genius for organizing the Hussites, who were mostly farmers, and turning them into an effective fighting force. He developed several tactics that allowed the Hussites to defeat several crusades that were launched against them by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.
Statue of Jan Zizka
Zizka knew what had happened when mobs of peasants had faced knights before – complete defeat. He knew that the Hussite’s only chance for victory was through organization, so that is what he set out to do. He made sure that there were clear rules, and clear punishments for violating them. Disobedience to orders was punishable by death. Zizka also trained his armies to march fast and move quickly, so that they could move easily to strike where they were needed.
Once his army had basic training, Zizka did not immediately go out to face his most powerful enemies. He first took opportunities to try small sorties into the surrounding countryside, practicing the drills that they had learned, gaining their weapons and tactics, and experiencing the rush of battle for the first time. Gradually, through much training and practice, Zizka’s farmers were turned into a disciplined fighting force, a feat nearly unheard of at this time in history. Towards the end of his career, Zizka wrote The Statues and Military Ordinances of Zizka’s New Brotherhood, which codified the practices he had fostered in his forces, and established a code of military conduct.
Zizka’s men lacked not only discipline, but weapons and equipment. So they improvised. They were farmers, so they turned farm tools into weapons. One of the most common were the flails, which farmers used to thresh gain. This was a long handle, with a short length of chain and then a shorter stick. These could easily be turned into fearsome weapons by embedding spikes in the shorter part of the flail.
Replica of a Hussite War Wagon
Another thing that farmers would have were wagons, and this is likely where war wagons, the most famous Hussite innovation, originated. The war wagons eventually became critical to the Hussite tactics. They were wagons that were specifically designed to be turned into a fort at a moment’s notice. They were likely the first mass produced military vehicle in history. They were generally plated with iron, with wheels and panels designed to interlock when placed end to end to create a solid wall. There was a high wall on one side of the wagon, and sometimes a roof, to protect the defenders. A ramp came down to allow easy entrance and exit. There was also a container of stones handily for ballast, and to use as missiles if the enemy got too close.
As part of Zizka’s organization, the crew of the wagon was very systematized. It consisted of 20 men, each with a specific role. Two were drivers who were also armed for defense. Two were handgunners, who manned a small gun or cannon which was usually mounted on a swivel in the wagon. Six more were crossbowmen, who could fire and reload in the shelter of the wagon. Four were flailmen, whose improvised weapons worked best against enemies with anything else other than plate armor. Four were halberdiers, who carried halberds, pike-like weapons that were designed to throw fully armored knights to the ground and then finish them off with a quick blow. Two were pavisiers, who carried large shields to provide cover for those carrying flails, halberds, or crossbows, when not in cover behind a wagon.
These wagons were organized into sections of ten. An army would have a total of fifty to a hundred wagons. 50 to 100 total wagons. This provided a way to very quickly build a fort that provided a refuge that heavily knightly cavalry could not easily overcome. The “tabor,” as the wagon forts were called, could even be mobile, as long as the horses survived. Once enemy knights were worn down by attacking the tabor, they would be vulnerable when the Hussites sallied out from the wagons to counterattack.
Hussites Fighting at the Battle of Lipan
The Hussites armies were some of the first forces of common men who were able to defeat knights through discipline and good training. They could be called the first step in the downfall of the knights. As technological changes lessened the knights’ supremacy, and other factors changed European society, crowds of pikemen and musketeers replaced the cadre of knights that had ruled the battlefield.
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.
Knights and footmen, spearmen and archers. Watch as swords are swung, maces are shaken and axes waived in the largest Medieval Reenactment. The Battle of Grunwald was fought in Poland by the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania against Teutonic Order of Crusader Knights.
This wooden structure overlooks a quiet field on the outskirts of the town of Crecy in France. However, on the 26th of August, 1346, this field was by no means quiet or peaceful, but the scene of one of the most iconic battles of the Hundred Years War. The English and French armies were encamped on this field, doggedly finished for the control of France. The English were vastly outnumbered by the French, and yet they routed their foes soundly, sending them fleeing from the field! Both sides believed that the outcome of the battle was dependent on one all-important fact… find out what it was in our video, “Why Did the English Win the Battle of Crecy”
If you were to find yourself on the outskirts of the small village of Crecy, France, on August 26 1346, you would find a sight very strange to modern eyes. Thousands of Englishmen arrayed for battle against the French, and at the head of one of the English divisions, a 16 year old boy.
Edward Woodstock kneels before his father
His name was Edward, and he was the son of Edward III, the King of England. Today he is commonly known as the Black Prince. As the story goes, this was because he wore black armor, but this name seems to have been invented after his death. At the time, he was known as Edward Woodstock. He was only 13 when he was made the Prince of Wales. While that is a ceremonial title today, in the 14th century it involved actually governing the country of Wales. This was a large responsibility to place on a lad who was barely a teenager.
Edward was 16 by the time of the Battle of Crecy, and had a great responsibility placed upon him. The English army was organized into three divisions, or “battles” as they were called. One of them was given to the Prince of Wales. A boy of only 16 commanding about a third of the English army, around 5,000 soldiers. He did have experienced knights surrounding him, such as the earls of Warwick and Oxford, who doubtless gave him plenty of advice. However, it was still a position of great responsibility.
19th century illustration of Crecy
Although the chroniclers differ as to how the English army was positioned, it is likely that the three battles were lined up one in front of another, with the Prince of Wales in front. Whatever his position, it is clear at some point in the battle that his men came under heavy attack. The fighting was so fierce, that a messanger was sent to the King, who was overlooking the battle from a nearby windmill, to ask for succor. The knight said:
Sir, the earl of Warwick and the earl of Oxford, sir Raynold Cobham and other, such as be about the prince, your son, are fiercely fought withal and are sore handled; wherefore they desire you that you and your battle will come and aid them; for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.1
King Edward answered:
‘Is my son dead or hurt or on the earth felled?’ ‘No, sir,’ quoth the knight, ‘but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid.’ ‘Well’ said the king, ‘return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth, as long as my son is alive: and also say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased, I will this journey be his and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.’ Then the knight returned again to them and shewed the king’s words, the which greatly encouraged them, and [repined] in that they had sent to the king as they did.2
The Prince and the rest of the English fought well that day, and at last the French were defeated.
Edward Woodstock lived on to become one of most famous English knights in history. A decade later, in fact, he captured King John of France at the Battle of Poitiers. Although he was next in line to the throne for many years, he never became King of England. He died in 1376 at the age of 45, just one year before his father.
When most historians today analyze why a battle was won or lost, they focus on military matters – differences in weapon technology, positioning of the troops, mistakes of the generals, morale of the soldiers, and many other factors. And while those issues are important, they leave out a major aspect. Older historians, especially those in the Middle Ages, attributed victories to the Providence of God – that God was working out His plans in the world by doling out victory or defeat.
Battle of Crecy
One example of this is from the Battle of Crecy on August 26, 1346. With very heavy fighting, the English army under King Edward III defeated a vastly larger French force under King Philip. Today we can attribute the victory to the poor leadership on the French side and their rash and disordered charge, along with the professionalism of the English soldiers, and their effective use of the longbow. At the time, both sides recognized this victory as coming from God’s hand. The French attributed their defeat as from the hand of God for their pride and vanity, their greed in seeking better terms in negotiating with the English, and for their failure to launch a Crusade as they had promised to do.
King Edward III
At this point, King Edward’s confessor and chaplain was Thomas Bradwardine. He was present at the Battle of Crecy, and not long thereafter he preached a sermon before the king giving thanks for the victory. In his message, he systematically tore apart every argument that could be made to attribute the English’s success to anything but God. As he said, “[T]he grace of God makes us to conquer, and to triumph over adversaries … not a star, not luck, not fortune, not an accident, not an omen, especially not ourselves, but the grace of God in us.”
At the time, the church in Europe was Catholic. True Christians in the tradition of the early church were few and far between. However, Thomas Bradwardine was one of those. He was a leading scientist and diplomat, but most importantly a theologian. He was an Augustinian, and wrote against the Pelegians, who hold that men can be saved by good works. In his book entitled De causa Dei, he argued that most of the Catholic church at that time believed in a form of Pelegianism. This theological tradition continues today in Arminianism, which is just a diluted form of Pelegianism.
Bradwardine’s book Geometria Speculativa
Bradwardine was eventually made Archbishop of Canturberry, but not long thereafter he died, a victim of the black plague. He was one of the few Christians at the time who could be said to have sound theology. He believed in predestination, holding that grace was necessary for salvation. He said that the church fathers were fallible, and that scripture was the perfect standard. With this theology, he was one of the forerunners of the Reformation. Not long thereafter, John Wycliffe arrived on the scene. Bradwardine’s writings were an influence on him, and with Wycliffe the Protestant Reformation began in England, eventually transforming the entire world.