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It’s fair to say the medieval era was not short on battles. But, among the many brutal confrontations that took place across Europe, some were more significant than others. Let’s take a look at five of the most pivotal clashes of all.
The Battle of Hastings (1066)
Hastings was the battle that changed Britain, ending the era of Anglo-Saxon rule and establishing an entirely new royal line, courtesy of William the Conqueror. It happened as a consequence of the death of English king Edward the Confessor in early 1066. William, the Duke of Normandy, firmly believed he’d been promised the throne, so when Anglo-Saxon nobleman Harold Godwinson was declared the new king, William decided to take England by force.
The confrontation happened on 14th October 1066, and things went Harold’s way, to begin with. Arrows unleashed by the Normans bounced ineffectively off a shield wall created by the front ranks of Harold’s forces. It was so impregnable that even William’s infantry and cavalry troops couldn’t break through.
However, the tide turned when Harold’s men went on the offensive. This thinned out the shield wall, finally giving the Normans their chance to strike. The decisive moment came when Harold himself was killed, possibly from being shot in the eye with an arrow. The battle was over soon after, and the triumphant William was crowned king a few months later on Christmas Day.
The Battle of Agincourt (1415)
Unfolding throughout much of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Hundred Years’ War was a sprawling conflict between the royal houses of England and France. One of its most pivotal battles took place at Agincourt in northern France, where England’s Henry V led his troops against a larger French army.
The battle, which took place on 25th October 1415, has gone down in history for a few reasons. One was the devasting use of the longbow by Henry’s army. The air was reportedly so dense with falling arrows that the very sunlight was blotted out. The archers’ onslaught threw the French cavalry into disarray, and they fared just as badly in the messy hand-to-hand combat that followed.
Agincourt is also remembered for the sheer scale of the French defeat. Many of the dead were dukes, counts and other members of the establishment, putting France on the back foot in the Hundred Years’ War. It also established the intrepid English king as one of the greatest military leaders of the Middle Ages, with his exploits on that day immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Henry V.
The Battle of Bouvines (1214)
It’s pretty obscure compared to the blockbuster battles of Hastings and Agincourt, but Bouvines had a huge impact on the balance of power in Europe. Taking place on 27th July 1214, it saw England’s King John bring together a grand coalition of allies, including Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, to take on Philip II of France.
John was motivated by his desire to reclaim the French territories he’d lost earlier that century, but things didn’t go according to plan. When the armies met on the fields of Bouvines in Flanders, the allied forces found themselves up against highly disciplined French knights who mounted deadly cavalry charges. The allies put up a fierce fight, stabbing the French knights through chinks in their armour, and even managed to drag Philip II from his horse in one critical moment.
Philip survived, however, and his forces were triumphant, consolidating his position as one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. Otto IV was toppled from power following this huge defeat, while a humiliated King John had to face the growing wrath of rebel barons back home. His weakened position paved the way for the signing of Magna Carta, which may never have happened without the Battle of Bouvines.
The Battle of Grunwald (1410)
On 15 July 1410, one of the biggest battles of the Middle Ages took place near Grunwald in Poland. On one side were the Teutonic Knights, who’d established their very own crusader state by the Baltic Sea. On the other was an alliance of Poles and Lithuanians, whose rivalry with the Teutonic Order stemmed back to the days when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a pagan state, and therefore a legitimate target for the Christian Order.
While the Order got off to a flying start, with the Teutonic Knights smashing into Lithuanian ranks and causing them to scatter, the battle soon turned against them. The grand master of the Order was killed, and many Knights were slaughtered while retreating.
Though the Order maintained most of its territory after this defeat, the battle marked the start of the Teutonic Knights’ decline and established the Polish-Lithuanian alliance as a powerful entity for centuries to come.
The Battle of Bannockburn (1314)
While the First War of Scottish Independence is synonymous in pop culture with William Wallace and his English nemesis Edward I, the truly decisive battle during this long struggle was fought in a later part of the conflict, between the forces of Robert the Bruce and Edward II.
Despite having been crowned King of Scots, Robert the Bruce had been forced to become a fugitive and wage a guerrilla war against the English forces in Scotland. Things came to a head at Bannockburn on 23rd and 24th June 1314, when Edward II’s troops tried to relieve a Scottish siege of an English-controlled castle.
Fighting back against this army, Robert the Bruce deployed tight contingents of pike-wielding troops, known as schiltrons, to lethal effect. He himself scored a morale-boosting victory by killing an English knight in single combat. The battle would also claim the lives of elite English commanders such as the Earl of Gloucester.
The monumental victory of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn made official Scottish independence an inevitability and it has been a source of patriotic pride ever since.