The story of England’s heroic King Arthur and his arch enemy Mordred has been a popular tale since the medieval era. It has been told and retold and been the subject of paintings and films as well as a succession of books. There are many differences between the narratives. For instance, sometimes Mordred is depicted as Arthur’s illegitimate son from his half-sister, or he might be portrayed as the son of the King of the Orkneys. He is also sometimes described as a member of King Arthur’s court who rebelled against him. However, the conflict between these two warriors and Mordred’s death in battle with Arthur are subjects of general agreement.
From the British Isles the legend of Arthur was carried to the European Continent and later to other English speaking countries around the world. The popularity of the first name Arthur in so many countries can also be traced to the fame of this legendary hero monarch. Today it is going to be hard to find someone educated in one of these lands who has not heard of King Arthur and is also able to name a few other of the characters and places featured. Although parts of the story are so well-known, its history and significance are not so widely appreciated.
The Origins of the Legend
Historians continue to speculate if King Arthur, Mordred and the other scenes and players in the legend have any historical basis. For the most part the story is associated with fifth or sixth century Wales. If a prototype for Arthur did exist he might have been a Celtic chieftain rallying his forces to fight off the Saxon invaders. References have been found to figures that might have been the model for King Arthur in some of the scare writings that survive from the Saxon period in British history, but none of the associations made are conclusive. Two Medieval writers share the responsibility for publicising the tale and incorporating in it many of the elements familiar to us today.
In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a history of the Kings of Britain. Many allege that he drew more on his imagination than on any older records that had come to his notice. Others claim that some of what he wrote corresponds with information in earlier documents that have now come to light. Whatever the authenticity of his facts, Geoffrey introduced his readers to a King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin the Wizard and of course, King Arthur’s arch enemy Mordred. In this version of the tale King Arthur goes to fight against the Roman Empire in Gaul (France of today). The evil Mordred takes advantage of the opportunity to usurp Arthur’s throne and take Queen Guinevere as his wife. The news reached King Arthur on campaign. He returns to his kingdom and fights a fierce battle with Mordred at a place called Camlann, Mordred is killed but Arthur is mortally wounded.
In the late medieval period Thomas Malory published a revised and comprehensive version of the Arthur stories, entitled “The Death of Arthur” (Le Morte d’Arthur). The publication of this work coincided with the introduction of the printing press. Malory’s work became one of the first books printed in England and standardised many aspects of the Arthur legend, for example, the idea of Arthur and his knights sitting at the Round Table dates from this publication. The bitter enmity between Arthur and Mordred continues to form a key part of the story but in a key change from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative Queen Guinevere remain loyal to King Arthur.
Why have these tales survived the years?
The fact that the reader of this article is likely to be familiar with tales of Arthur and Mordred is a testimony to their enduring power. Yet they are more than simple stories. The Arthur tales have contributed culturally to the shaping of Britain’s identity. Over all these years they continue to serve a useful purpose. People are attracted by the idea that there was once an age when chivalrous knights rode about the British countryside fighting treacherous enemies like Mordred, or even supernatural dragons and other monsters. During World War Two, tales of Arthur’s bravery against the country’s enemies provided a rallying point for resistance to German aggression. Today the interest is probably largely of an escapist nature. Regardless of whether or not there is a basis in history, it seems that tales of Arthur and Mordred still serve a purpose in our hi-tech age.
By: Jane Richardson in newhistorian.com
Military history is often obsessed with innovation. Length of spear or range of firearm are viewed as decisive factors in the rise and fall of civilisations. If one group gains a particular advantage, they gain in power and conquer those reliant on an outdated method of fighting. This is, however, not always the case.
In Iran, incredibly few military innovations occurred in the 800 years after the year 550 CE. We must understand this period as one of essential functionality in terms of the military system. It would be incorrect to view Medieval Iran as a dysfunctional society, under continual upheavals as a result of constant military innovation.
Eduard Alofs has been examining this period of Iran’s history. He notes that by understanding Medieval Iran as a stable and well-functioning military system, we are able to view how Iranian soldiers behaved. “It also opens up the possibility of using the vast amount of sources from this period to reconstruct this military system,” Alofs writes in the report of his findings, published in the most recent edition of the journal War in History.
One of the most enduring images of Iranian warriors is of the mounted horse archer. It was these fearsome warriors who defeated Roman legions when they ventured eastward into Arabia.
Of course, the Iranian military did not solely consist of mounted archers. Alofs notes that numerous sources from Medieval Iran attest to a large contingent of unarmed support personnel.
“The armoured horse archer, could only function in battle with his full equipment, some of which might be his personal property,” Alofs explained. “[Numerous sources describe] clerks carefully [noting] the equipment each soldier had brought at his own expense, so that he would be compensated and the deficiency would be supplied from the government arsenal and stables.”
Throughout the Medieval period, the equipment of Iranian mounted archers remained incredibly consistent. Reports of what weapons and armour each soldier had reveal that every horseman was required to carry a bow and lance; swords were also common. For protection, a metal shirt, helmet, and armour for both arms and legs were worn. Round shields were used frequently and armoured hoods were commonly worn underneath the helmet as added protection for vulnerable areas. Horses, also, were usually well protected.
Alofs notes that large numbers of support personnel were required to facilitate large, heavily-armed cavalry forces. These included “various kinds of craftsmen, such as masons and bricklayers to repair or erect fortifications, carpenters to build artillery, bowers and blacksmiths to repair the arms and armour of the soldiers, and tailors, cobblers, and saddle-makers to repair their other equipment.”
It is clear that the mounted archer, prevalent in Medieval Iran, was a formidable fighting force. For 800 years they were the most effective military entity in the Arabic world, as evidenced by their continuity throughout the Medieval period.
Alofs’ work allows us to properly glimpse their full power, as shown through their fearsome array of weapons and armour. He also emphasises that these warriors required significant support from unarmed personnel.
This stratification of people in the Iranian military allows us to glimpse the social structure of the time: those who could afford arms and horses were superior to those who could not. Interestingly, these lower ranks were expected to follow armies on campaign, providing support and maintaining the army.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Yaan
By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com
The Levant, the region running inland from the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, has been fought over for millennia. Its vital trade and military roads linking Anatolia to north Africa and Arabia have been guarded and coveted since time immemorial. Control is everything, as Moses found out to his cost when he wanted to move north up the ancient King’s Highway out of the Sinai and into Edom (modern day southern Israel):
“Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.” The Israelites said to him, “We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large force, heavily armed. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory; so Israel turned away from them.
Countless cultures have fought for dominance in the region — Canaanite, Philistine, Hebrew, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljuk, crusader, Ayyubid, Khwarazmian, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, French, Jewish, the list goes on. Most of the conquests have been bloody. All have caused regional upheavals. Some have spread even further, sending international shockwaves east and west.
This week marks two major anniversaries of crusader history, both of which had a profound impact on the whole of Europe. On 4 July 1187, Saladin crushed the crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hattin — one of the most important military encounters of the medieval world. Ninety years later, on 1 July 1277, Sultan al-Malik Baybars died. Although less well known in the West than Saladin, Baybars was a far more brutal and effective warlord. It was his devastating campaigns that finally ripped the heart out of the crusades, propelling the whole project into its darkening, twilight years.
When the crusaders had first conquered Jerusalem in 1099, waves of elation crashed across Latin Christendom. Jerusalem was the umbilicus mundi, the centre of Europe’s conception of the world as depicted in medieval maps like Hereford’s glorious Mappa Mundi. God clearly favoured the Christian settlers, and had given their armies Jerusalem to prove it.
The crusades were not the first time Jerusalem was under Christian rule. The Holy Land had been Christian in the days of the Byzantine Empire (c. AD 325–637). Emperor Constantine the Great and Empress Helena had Christianised the city, renaming it “Jerusalem” and wiping out the pagan remains of Aelia Capitolina built by Hadrian in AD 130 on the rubble of Jerusalem. At the heart of his new Jerusalem, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and made it the pre-eminent Christian pilgrimage destination. However, since the Rashidun Caliphate under Umar the Great had conquered the Near East in AD 637, Jerusalem had been under Islamic rule.
Hand in hand with the crusaders’ initial elation in 1099 came the practical problem of controlling vast swathes of conquered territory far from home in their new land of “Outremer”, the place “beyond the sea”. The result was countless famous battles in which the pendulum swung one way then the other during the 192 years of crusader presence in the Levant. Although many of the engagements are still famous — like Jacob’s Ford and the Field of Blood — the Horns of Hattin stands head and shoulders above them as one of the turning points of world history.
Today, as the politically unrelated and separate conflicts in Syria and Iraq coalesce and evolve into an all-consuming regional power struggle, it is worth looking at the battle of the Horns of Hattin as a reminder of the region’s merciless ability to keep redrawing its borders and reinventing itself in blood.
First, put Ridley Scott’s epic 2005 film, Kingdom of Heaven, out of mind. It excels in evoking the existential crisis of the crusader kingdom at the tail end of the reign of the leper king, Baldwin IV. And it is a seductive and visually sumptuous world, where faith, honour, ideals, and love vie alongside ambition, bloodlust, venality, and the ugly side of unchecked militarism. But it is not a faithful account of the events leading up to the cataclysmic battle of Hattin and Balian of Ibelin’s doomed defence of Jerusalem. For a start, the real Balian was 44 years old at Hattin, did not know one end of an anvil from the other, was married to a member of the Byzantine royal family, and was born and lived his whole life as a powerful, wealthy noble in the crusader states.
The true story of Hattin is nevertheless every bit as soaked in romance and ambition as Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.
Some years earlier, Lucia of Botrun, a beautiful and wealthy Levantine heiress, was ignominiously placed onto a huge set of scales and publicly weighed. A merchant from Pisa piled up the pan on the other side with gold bezants until he had measured out her weight in gold, which he then gave to her overlord as payment for her hand in marriage. In the wings, a headstrong Flemish crusader, Gerard de Ridefort, vowed revenge. He had previously asked Lucia’s overlord, Count Raymond III of Tripoli (of Toulouse) for her hand, but his request was refused. Despite the fact Raymond was one of the kingdom’s wisest and coolest heads, Gerard immediately left Raymond’s service, nursing a grievance that would lead to the downfall of a kingdom.
After recovering from a serious illness, or perhaps sensing faster promotion as a professional crusader, Gerard soon took the dramatic step of professing solemn monastic vows as a Knight Templar, devoting himself to a celibate community life of praying and fighting. His exceptional abilities were quickly recognised, and he rose swiftly through the Order’s ranks to become their tenth Grand Master. This unique position gave him privileged access to Christendom’s royalty — especially in Jerusalem — an influence he used, among other things, to oppose and thwart Raymond whenever he could.
In 1185, on the death of the leper King Baldwin IV, his seven-year-old nephew took the throne under the regency of Raymond. But when the young king died within a year, the crown passed to his mother and step-father: Sibylla of Jerusalem and Guy of Lusignan. The kingdom promptly tore itself into two poisonously opposed factions — those like Gerard de Ridefort and the Templars who supported Queen Sibylla and King Guy, and those like Count Raymond who backed Isabella, Sibylla’s half-sister.
With the kingdom hopelessly divided, the scene was set for a catastrophe. It just needed someone to light the touchpaper.
King Guy counted among his camp a maverick one-man army: Raynald of Châtillon, “the Elephant of Christ”. Raynald had been in the crusader states since the second crusade, and had spent 15 years in a Muslim jail before leading the crusader forces to a spectacular victory against Saladin at the fêted battle of Montgisard, Saladin’s most crushing defeat. Raynald was therefore a seasoned operator in the region, and had been rewarded with the lordship of Oultrejourdain (the lands beyond the River Jordan). However, he is usually most often remembered for his cruelty, endless piracy and plundering, unwillingness to obey kings, and repeated breaking of delicate truces to the annoyance of all sides.
In 1187, when Raynald again broke a truce and attacked yet another Muslim caravan travelling the King’s Highway near his Red Sea outpost at Kerak, Saladin could stand by no longer. He declared the truce to be a sham, and led an invasion army across the Jordan. Raynald’s lawlessness had finally provoked the largest united Muslim force the crusaders had ever seen.
The end began quickly. On 1 May 1187, at the Springs of Cresson near Nazareth, a small group of around 140 Templars and Hospitallers found themselves confronting a 7.000-strong detachment of the Muslim army under al-Afdal, Saladin’s son. The master of the Hospitallers and several senior Templars counselled retreat, but Gerard de Ridefort accused them of cowardice and ordered an attack. The result was a charnel house. Gerard de Ridefort and two other Templars were the only known survivors.
Back in Jerusalem. King Guy and the royal court knew that a full-scale onslaught from Saladin’s 30,000 men was now imminent. All they could do was wait to see where it would come.
Saladin made the first move. He advanced to Tiberias on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. The castle belonged to Count Raymond III of Tripoli, who was away with the royal court, leaving it garrisoned by Eschiva, his wife.
On 2 July, King Guy held a war council to decide on a response. And it was here, at this critical moment in the history of the crusader kingdom, that the memory of Lucia of Botrun on the gold scales filled the room. Count Raymond calmly advised King Guy that Saladin was setting a trap, trying to get the crusaders to leave the safety and water of Sepphoris. He was, Raymond explained, hoping to lure the crusaders onto arid open ground where the Muslims’ numerical advantage could be best used. But whatever Raymond said was always wrong in the eyes of Gerard de Ridefort and Raynald of Châtillon, who shouted him down, accusing him of cowardice. They argued long into the night that King Guy should immediately lead the crusaders to march on Tiberias. In undoubtedly the worst decision of his life, Guy allowed himself to be persuaded by Gerard and Raynald, and ordered the army to ready itself. He was a politician not a soldier, and his lack of experience was about to cost the crusaders dearly.
The following day, 3 July, the pride of the crusading army thundered out of the springs of Sepphoris heading east for Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. From the moment they left, the outcome was sealed. Saladin had to do very little. The summer heat was unbearable, and the mail-clad crusaders lacked water. To make them even thirstier, Saladin lit brushwood fires around them, engulfing the advancing columns in clouds of billowing smoke. Panicked, choking, and dehydrated, the crusader army broke apart, allowing Saladin to encircle them. The crusaders were finally corralled on the two hills known as the Horns of Hattin, just six miles short of Tiberias, where the massacre began.
King Guy, Gerard de Ridefort, and Raynald of Châtillon were all taken prisoner. The crusaders’ most sacred relic, the True Cross discovered by the Empress Helena in the AD 320s, was also captured, taken in triumph to Damascus, and never seen again.
As depicted in Kingdom of Heaven, Saladin invited King Guy and Raynald of Châtillon into his tent, where he offered a groggy Guy a cup of iced water to slake his thirst. When Guy then passed the cup to Raynald, Saladin responded that he had not personally offered refreshment to Raynald, and was therefore not bound by any rules of hospitality towards him. He asked Raynald why he had broken so many oaths over the years. Raynald replied that kings had always acted thus, and he had done no more. Saladin then personally beheaded Raynald, before dragging his decapitated body over to a terrified Guy. “Kings do not kill kings”, he reassured Guy, but explained that Raynald was an oath-breaker whose repeated “maleficence and perfidy” had warranted immediate death.
Guy and the other captured nobles were all eventually ransomed, apart from the 230 Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller whom Saladin judged too militarily dangerous to be allowed freedom. He ordered them beheaded on the spot:
With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair.
(Imad ad-Din, On the Conquest of the Holy City)
With their army decimated, the crusaders could only watch as one by one their cities then fell. Queen Sibylla and Patriarch Heraclius mounted a last-ditch defence of Jerusalem, before roping in Balian of Ibelin, who had dropped by to collect his family. Balian’s involvement was in strict defiance of an oath of non-belligerence he had given Saladin in order to be allowed to travel to Jerusalem, but he wrote to Saladin to explain his predicament, and Saladin seemed happy for Balian to try to organise Jerusalem’s defences. In any event, they both knew Jerusalem could not withstand a siege. Balian had only a handful of knights, so spontaneously knighted the city’s squires to help in the effort. But it was largely symbolic. On 2 October, Balian went to Saladin’s tent. Saladin confirmed that he had sworn to kill all Jerusalem’s men and to enslave the women and children. In response, Balian threatened to execute the 5,000 Muslim prisoners in Jerusalem, kill the crusaders’ families and livestock, destroy all treasures, and raze the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock to the ground before he and the men marched out to meet their glorious deaths at Saladin’s hands. Unnerved, Saladin suggested a peaceful surrender, which Balian accepted. Saladin then granted safe passage to all inhabitants who could pay their way, and sold the remaining men, women, and children into slavery.
The reaction across Christendom was utter disbelief. It was unthinkable that Jerusalem was no longer a Christian city. Four generations of Western children had grown up knowing that Jerusalem was part of Christendom. The grief at losing it tore deep into the soul of the West. On hearing the news, Pope Urban III died of shock. Within two years, Europe’s leading warrior, Richard the Lionheart, was personally in Outremer to set things right. But the tide had turned, and he failed ever to set eyes on Jerusalem.
Although the crusader states would limp on for another 105 years from their new headquarters at Tyre and then at Acre, medieval Christendom never again owned Jerusalem outright, and life became immeasurably harsher for the remaining crusaders and settlers — notably as a result of the campaigns of Sultan al-Malik Baybars, who died on 1 July 1277, providing the other major Levantine anniversary this week.
Unlike any of the crusaders’ previous opponents, Baybars was a military machine. On some levels, Saladin was not an especially talented general — over the course of 17 years of campaigning against the crusaders, he was regularly not successful on the battlefield. Baybars, on the other hand, was a highly effective general. He rose to power by murdering two Sultans of Egypt (including the last Ayyubid of Saladin’s dynasty), before finally taking personal control as Sultan, leading a hardened army of Mamluks from Egypt and Syria. He was a warlord who had built Egypt’s military caste of slave soldiers (mamluk means slave) into a juggernaut that dominated without opposition, steamrollering both the crusaders and the Mongols invading from the east. To put that into perspective, the Mongols had recently blitzkrieged their way from China to Poland, slaughtering entire populations. No terror like it had ever been seen. In many cities, there was no one left to clear away the mountains of rotting bodies. When Baybars and his Mamluks defeated them in AD 1260 at Ain Jalut (in the Jezreel Valley, Galilee), it was the first time the massed Mongol forces had ever been convincingly beaten. It is little wonder that the Islamic world has always told stories of Baybars, whereas Saladin fell into relative obscurity until resuscitated by Western interest.
Saladin may have broken the crusaders’ hearts, but it was Baybars who effectively snuffed out the crusade movement. As the news from Syria and Iraq in the last few weeks now makes clear, the complexion of the Levant region is changing again. The vacuum in Iraq and the disintegration of society in Syria have created new groups, alliances, and interests. We do well to remember that the region is one where nothing has ever stood still for long.
in The Telegraph
by: Dominic Selwood
Dr Dominic Selwood is a former criminal barrister, novelist and historian with a passion for the less visited corners of the archives. He is the author of the crypto-thriller, The Sword of Moses (2013), and the textbook on the Knights Templar, Knights of the Cloister (1999). He tweets as @DominicSelwood