5 Key Battles of Medieval Europe

Harry Atkins

4 mins

12 Jul 2018

In the aftermath of the Roman Empire’s demise, Europe became a land of vying kingdoms, ideological crusading and feudal conflict. Battles invariably provided a bloody resolution to all such disputes, proving that diplomatic sophistication wasn’t about to usurp the blunt effectiveness of military strength any time soon.

Of course, as the period wore on the nature of the battles being fought across the continent changed, shifting gradually towards politically motivated empire building as emergent states began to centralise power and prioritise imperialism over religion and feudalism.

Technological developments also played a significant part in the evolution of warfare during the Middle Ages. The prominence of cavalry in 11th century battles gave way to an “infantry revolution” in the early 14th century before the emergence of gunpowder artillery transformed the battlefield forever. Here are five of the most significant medieval military clashes.

1. Tours (10 October 732)

Would the Umayyad Caliphate have gone on to conquer Europe if its army hadn’t been defeated at Tours?

Known as Ma’arakat Balat ash-Shuhada (Battle of the Palace of Martyrs) in Arabic, the Battle of Tours saw Charles Martel’s Frankish army defeat a large Umayyad force led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Given the invading Islamic Army’s confident march from the Iberian Peninsula into Gaul, Tours was a significant victory for Christian Europe. Indeed, some historians have contended that the Umayyad Caliphate would have gone on to conquer Europe had Charles Martel’s army not succeeded in halting their march.

2. Hastings (14 October 1066)

Famously illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, the denouement of the Battle of Hastings is no doubt familiar to most: King Harold is depicted with an arrow embedded in his eye, the annotation pronouncing “Here King Harold has been killed”.

Whether the text refers to the arrow victim or a nearby figure being struck down with a sword is unclear but there can be no doubt that Harold Godwinson, the reigning Anglo-Saxon King of England, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Hastings and that his army suffered a decisive loss at the hands of William the Conqueror’s Norman invaders.

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Hastings was fought only a few weeks after Harold had triumphed over Harald Hardrada’s invading Viking force at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire.

The embattled king then marched his men to the south coast, where he faced a second invasion in the shape of William’s Norman forces. This time his fatigued army lost. The Battle of Hastings enabled the Norman conquest of England, which brought with it a new era of British history.

3. Bouvines (27 July 1214)

Described by John France, professor emeritus in medieval history at Swansea University, as “the most important battle in English history that no-one has ever heard of”, Bouvines’ lasting historic significance relates to the Magna Carta, which was sealed by King John the following year.

Had John’s coalition force prevailed at Bouvines, it’s quite possible he wouldn’t have been compelled to agree to the famous charter, which limited the power of the crown and established the basis for common law.

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The battle was instigated by John, who, in the absence of support from the English barons, assembled a coalition force that included the realms of German Holy Roman Emperor Otto and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne. Their aim was to reclaim parts of Anjou and Normandy that had been lost to the French King Philip Augustus (II) in 1204.

In the event, the French won an emphatic victory over a poorly organised Allied force and John returned to England cowed by an expensive and humiliating defeat. With his standing weakened, the king had little choice but to submit to the barons’ demands and agree to the Magna Carta.

4. Mohi (11 April 1241)

A battle that gives some idea of the Mongol army’s formidable force in the Middle Ages, Mohi (also known as the Battle of the Sajó River) was the biggest battle of the Mongols’ 13th century European invasion.

The Mongols attacked the Kingdom of Hungary on three fronts, inflicting similarly devastating victories wherever they struck. Mohi was the site of the main battle and saw the Royal Hungarian army decimated by a Mongol force that utilised innovative military engineering – including catapult-fired explosives – to powerful effect.

The coronation of Ögedei Khan in 1229.

Led by Batu Khan, the Mongols’ attack was motivated by their pursuit of the Cumans, a nomadic Turkish tribe who had fled to Hungary following unresolved military conflict with the Mongols in 1223.

Hungary paid a heavy price for granting the Cumans asylum; by the end of the invasion the country lay in ruins and as much as a quarter of the population had been mercilessly wiped out. Unsurprisingly, this sent a wave of panic through Europe, but the Mongols’ advance came to an abrupt end when Ögedei Khan – Genghis Khan’s third son and heir – died and the army was required to return home.

5. Castillon (17 July 1453)

Though the so called “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France was misleadingly named (it was active between 1337 and 1453 and is more accurately described as a series of conflicts divided by truces than a single ongoing war), the Battle of Castillon is widely considered to have brought it to an end.

The Battle of Castillon effectively ended the Hundred Years’ War.

The battle was sparked by England’s recapture of Bordeaux in October 1452. This move was prompted by the city’s citizens, who, after hundreds of years of Plantagenet rule, still considered themselves to be English subjects despite the city’s capture by Charles VII’s French forces the previous year.

France retaliated, laying siege to Castillon before setting up a strong defensive artillery park and awaiting the approach of the English. John Talbot, a noted English military commander of some vintage, recklessly led an understrength English force into battle and his men were routed. The French went on to recapture Bordeaux, effectively ending the Hundred Years’ War.