The medieval period, sometimes referred to as the Middle Ages, was the period that spanned just over a millennium from approximately 300 CE to 1500. During this period the world was transformed, and some of the most famous battles in history took place in this era. There is not one factor which characterizes a medieval battle or siege, as warfare evolved over the centuries. This article will not simply describe the types of warfare, it will explain the results and what they meant for the medieval world.
1. The Dawn of the Middle Ages: The Medieval Battle For Rome, 24th August 410
A common misconception about the “Middle Ages” or “medieval” world is that it was all knights in shining armour, chivalry, and ladies in waiting. Part of it was — the period known as the “High Middle Ages”, which spans from around 1000-1300 — but the reality is that the early medieval period set the precedent for the High Middle Ages. One of the most famous medieval battles is the Sack of Rome, conducted by Alaric and his Visigoths in 410 CE.
For some time, the Roman Empire had been heading towards collapse. Events during the Third Century Crisis which had been partially rectified by Emperor Diocletian still stung the Roman population almost two hundred years later. A disgruntled populace was there for the taking when heavily armed enemies were outside the very walls of Rome.
After besieging the city for weeks, the Visigoths devised a plan whereby they would offer the Romans in the city some of their slaves, out of a mark of respect for withstanding a siege for so long. Sure enough, the Romans opened up the Salarian Gate, and the Visigoths poured into the city.
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Alaric and his Visigoths besieged Rome for three whole days, murdering aristocrats, burning buildings, and looting anything they could get their hands on. In the space of three days, the ancient city of Rome — which had not been sacked for over 800 years — had been completely ruined within the space of three days. To make matters worse, the Romans viewed the Visigoths as barbarians, or savages, and themselves as superior.
The reason that this medieval battle makes the list is because of the impact it had not just on Rome itself, but on Roman thinking: they had been completely obliterated by an army of savages. They realised that they were not immortal, and their city was in fact penetrable. The Visigoths had certainly played their part in ensuring its quick demise after the Sack of Rome in 410.
2. The Battle For England: The Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066
This next medieval battle is one that almost everybody has heard of. It marked the end of Saxon rule in England, and the beginning of Norman rule. The battle was so significant because the Royal Family in England can be traced back over 1000 years to the Battle of Hastings, where the Norman Dynasty were the victors and their descendants were to rule England for over 1000 years.
The battle itself took place on the South-East coast of England in a town called Hastings. The English king at the time, Harold II, had just finished a battle at York and his troops marched down the country at an extraordinary speed to meet with William of Normandy’s forces. Harold’s troops were exhausted from the demanding march after days of fighting over 300 miles away, and they were already at a disadvantage because of this.
William’s forces took advantage of this and won a decisive victory, with Harold II being killed, allegedly by an arrow that was shot into his eye; an image which is depicted in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. William was crowned as William I of England on Christmas Day 1066, and today is better known by his eponym: William the Conqueror.
3. The Battle of Antioch, 28th June 1098
The Battle of Antioch was part of the conflict known as the First Crusade, in which Christian European forces rallied together after Pope Urban II’s famous Council at Clermont in 1095 to aid their Byzantine brethren in the East against Muslim forces.
After fighting at Nicaea and Dorylaeum, the Crusaders reached Antioch. Their goal was to take Jerusalem (which they were eventually successful at — to an extent), so why has the victory at Antioch been included in this list of medieval battles?
For a start, where Antioch was situated was key for the Crusaders. It was located in present-day Antakya, Turkey, east of the Orontes River. This meant that supplies could be shipped from Europe, and through the river systems of Greece and Turkey to reach the Crusaders. In addition, the Battle of Antioch was the culmination of what became known as the Siege of Antioch: an eight-month long siege of the city, which lasted from October 1097 to June 1098.
The Christians had to defend Antioch, or all of their attempts to reach Jerusalem — the Holy Land — would have been in vain. Eventually, six divisions of the starving Christian troops emerged from the gates. The Muslim leader, Kerbogha, ordered an immediate attack, but Bohemond of Taranto — a Crusader leader — had planned for this, and a seventh division of Christian soldiers managed to hold off the attack.
The Crusaders allegedly saw visions of St George which boosted their morale, and eventually, the Muslim troops retreated, scattered in numerous different directions and the Crusaders kept hold of their precious city of Antioch.
4. The Fall of Jerusalem: The Battle of Hattin, 4th July 1187
Another battle from the Crusades makes this list of greatest medieval battles. Yet this time the battle was not a victory in favor of the Crusaders. After the Second Crusade — a disaster for the Crusaders — the troops were faced with one of the Islamic world’s most formidable military leaders: Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin.
Saladin’s Muslim troops had positioned themselves carefully, in an arc shape around Hattin, which cut off the water supply from Lake Tiberias (known today as the Sea of Galilee). This not only ensured that the Muslim troops could stay hydrated for as long as necessary, but it made the Crusaders dehydrated and thus weaker.
The Muslims surrounded the Crusaders overnight, keeping them awake by chanting prayers and beating drums. They also set fire to the dry grass around the Crusader camp, which made their throats even drier.
On the morning of July 4th, the Crusader army was blinded by smoke from the Muslim fires, which gave the Muslims the perfect excuse to open fire with their archers. Thoroughly demoralized and disorientated, the Crusaders broke formation and made for the springs of Hattin. However, due to dehydration and their injuries, the vast majority of them were simply picked off by Muslim soldiers and killed. Saladin had successfully taken back Muslim lands, which is why this is one of history’s greatest medieval battles.
5. Battle of Bouvines, 27th July 1214
In 1212, King Philip II of France had planned to cross the English Channel and take England for himself. This had scared the English king, King John, enough to realize how vulnerable he was with less than 30 miles of water between the two feuding kingdoms.
As a response, John made peace with the Church (he had been effectively placed under suspension by Pope Innocent III in 1208 for his constant arguing with the Church). This came at a cost, though: he promised to surrender his kingdom to the Pope as well as to pay an annual sum of 1000 marks to Innocent and his successors in perpetuity. A fourteenth-century chronicler, Henry Knighton, noted that John had “turned himself from a free man into a slave”.
As a result, John had no option but to go to war, and his forces (along with those of the Holy Roman Empire under Otto IV) met at Bouvines. The Allied army of 9,000 outnumbered Philip’s army by 2000. Nevertheless, the French army destroyed John’s forces and completely destroyed any hopes of John regaining his territory.
This was a hugely significant medieval battle for a number of reasons: firstly, it signified the early collapse of the Plantagenet Empire — all of the territory that had been won under John’s father, Henry II, was now lost. Secondly, it ended the Anglo-French war of 1213-14. Thirdly, it changed the course of English history forever. Realizing how weakened he was, John’s barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta, a legal document that still holds precedent in English law over 800 years later.
6. The War for Scotland: The Battle of Bannockburn, 24th June 1314
One hundred years after Bouvines and during the reign of King John’s great-grandson Edward II comes another one of history’s greatest medieval battles: the Battle of Bannockburn.
Bannockburn was part of the Anglo-Scottish wars which stretched from the late thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth centuries. The Scottish king, Robert I (better known as Robert the Bruce) had reclaimed both Roxburgh Castle and Edinburgh Castle in early 1314, which essentially invited the English to war in Scotland.
The resulting confrontation was the Battle of Bannockburn, which was one of the most catastrophic defeats in English history. It was a disaster before the battle had even begun: the English Earls of Gloucester and Hereford argued over who should lead the vanguard, and Edward accused the Earl of Gloucester of being a coward — not ideal in the hours before a battle.
Enraged by the king’s comments, Gloucester charged forward to meet the Scottish forces and was killed. The Scottish army then forced the English back into the Bannockburn stream and trapped it in between the riverbanks, the English forces lost formation and broke ranks.
To rub salt into English wounds, it is estimated that Bruce’s Scottish forces only numbered 6,000, compared to Edward’s army of 20,000. Such a huge military disaster tainted Edward II’s reputation as king, particularly given that his father, Edward I, was so successful against the Scots. To make matters worse posthumously for Edward II, his son, Edward III, was also successful against the Scots on numerous occasions, making Edward II’s reputation even worse. And it is Edward III who we turn to next.
7. The Battle of Sluys, 24th June 1340
So far, all of the battles that have been discussed have been land-based. Sluys was different: it was a naval battle. Part of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the battle of Sluys was one of Edward III’s most notable victories and a huge victory for England. With King Philip VI of France having his attention set on the North Sea in early 1340, Edward III knew he had to act to defend his kingdom. However, the odds were instead in Philip’s favor: by June, he had amassed a fleet of 213 ships, while Edward had mustered about 150.
On the 26th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, Edward’s English forces met Philip’s French forces at the Bay of Sluys in Flanders. The French fleet was defending the bay, while Edward’s advanced towards them. Philip had ensured that his ships were chained together, so as to make an impenetrable barrier against the English forces.
However, after four hours of combat, the English ships broke through the first line of French defense, and the French capitulated. Edward captured all but 23 of the French ships, and estimates of between 16,000 and 18,000 French seamen and soldiers lost their lives. Sluys belongs on the list of the greatest medieval battles because it was a turning point in the Hundred Years War, and it solidified it in England’s favor.
8. The Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415
Our next battle on this list is another from the Hundred Years War, but this time towards the middle of the conflict. Under the Lancastrian king, Henry V, English forces emerged victorious in not just one of the greatest medieval battles of all time, but one of history’s greatest underdog stories.
After a few decades of relative peace in the Hundred Years War, England and France had resumed negotiations but they had turned sour. As a result, England began to rearm and prepare for war – this time under Edward III’s great-grandson, Henry V.
In the ensuing campaigns, English numbers had been decimated by disease, and they tried to withdraw from English-held Calais but found their route blocked by French forces at Agincourt. Despite their severe numerical disadvantage — around 7,000 English soldiers to about 25,000 French — Henry V had no other option but to fight his way out.
The French forces were led by a nobleman called Charles d’Albret (King Charles VI of France was severely mentally ill), while Henry V commanded the English army. The English longbows, which had shown such prominence in the early battles of the Hundred Years War under Edward III in conflicts such as Crécy and Poitiers, once again proved their superiority.
The English forces routed the French and lost about 600 men, compared to the 6,000 French who were killed, and the 2,000 who were captured and mostly executed. The reason that Agincourt belongs on this list of the greatest medieval battles is because it turned the Hundred Years War back in the favor of England. It also proved that the longbow — despite being used for almost a century — was still the superior weapon of the day.
9. The End of the Byzantine Empire: The Siege of Constantinople, 29th May 1453
This list of the greatest medieval battles would be incomplete without including the tragic story of the fall of Constantinople, which signaled the final collapse of the Roman Empire.
Sometimes referred to as the “Conquest of Istanbul” in Turkish, the Fall of Constantinople was the culmination of a 53-day siege of the city, which at the time was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The beginnings of the Byzantine Empire had been formed under Roman Emperor Constantine I in 330, who established the capital, and it survived as the Eastern Roman Empire after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the sixth century.
Due to centuries of conflict between the eastern and western churches, the Byzantines were effectively left on their own to defend their city after they had predicted an assault from the Ottomans.
Unfortunately, this story is not one of underdogs. The Ottoman army, commanded by the 21-year old Sultan Mehmed II (who became known as Mehmed the Conqueror), numbered almost 200,000, while the Byzantines had just over 10,000. It was always going to be an Ottoman victory.
Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos led the Byzantine army which was completely obliterated by Mehmed’s forces. Mehmed made Constantinople the new capital of the Ottoman Empire after his victory, and not only ended the Byzantine Empire but also the Roman Empire.
This is one of the most significant battles of all time, not just one of the key medieval battles. It enabled the Ottomans to push further into Europe, and they gained much more territory in the Balkans, which still exhibits a Muslim influence to this day, particularly in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. Furthermore, it led to a change in warfare — sieges had often been held up, with turrets firing huge boulders at thick castle walls, but with the onset of gunpowder, castles crumbled and changed military tactics forever.
Finally, the Fall of Constantinople is such a key event in medieval history, that it is sometimes referred to as the end of the Middle Ages, and the ushering in of the Early Modern period. However, some historians disagree and instead prefer to turn to 1492, which is the final battle on this list of the greatest medieval battles.
10. The Medieval Battle to Unify Spain: The Fall of Granada, 2nd January 1492
The final battle on this list is another key event in medieval history, and the whole year 1492 is often used to describe the change from the Medieval Period to the Early Modern Period — particularly Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas. However, the fall of Granada is just as important to European history.
Muslims had ruled the Iberian Peninsula in various areas since the conquest of Al-Andalus in 711. Thus, the fall of Granada — the Muslims’ last stand in Iberia — ended 781 years of Muslim rule in the Peninsula, who were never to return again.
The Granada War had been going on since 1482 with various conflicts and battles, but they all eventually culminated in the fall of Granada in 1492. The Granadan defenders were also plagued with internal conflicts, while the Christian forces remained unified under the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, two monarchs who are some of Spanish history’s most revered and respected rulers of all time: by unifying their kingdoms, they defeated their mutual enemy.
Eventually, after realizing there was nowhere else to turn to, Muhammad XII (also known as Boabdil) surrendered the magnificent Alhambra Palace to the Christian forces who moved in. Allegedly, Boabdil’s mother was so disappointed when he wept as he handed the keys to the Alhambra over that she said: “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.”
However, although Granada was now in Christian hands, that did not end all conflict. If anything, it prevented the religious coexistence which had survived for centuries. All of the Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or face exile, and the same applied to the Muslims.
Even so, the fall of Granada is definitely one of history’s most significant medieval battles, because of how it affected the Iberian Peninsula to this day. Evidence of the Muslim influence is still very much present in the wonderful Alhambra Palace today, but it is also clear in Spain’s highly Catholic population that Islam has well and truly left the Peninsula forever.