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Knights in armour clash

6 bloodiest battles in medieval history


Warfare during the medieval period was incredibly ferocious. When they weren’t being slaughtered by arrows raining down from the sky, soldiers were hacked or pounded to death by swords, axes and hammers. Here are just some of the bloodiest battles of that grisly era.

1. The Battle of Towton

The biggest battle ever waged on English soil, the confrontation at Towton was part of the Wars of the Roses, when the royal houses of Lancaster and York fought for control of the country.

On 29th March 1461, the Yorkist Edward IV – who’d recently proclaimed himself king – sought to solidify his position with a decisive victory against the forces of his Lancastrian nemesis Henry VI. Their troops met in the North Yorkshire community of Towton, where gruelling hand-to-hand combat took place during a raging snowstorm.

Aged just 18 at the time, Edward was there in person and presided over a truly crushing victory. Lancastrians weren’t just killed in battle – they trampled each other to death while trying to escape, and many were stabbed and hammered after surrendering.

It’s believed as many as 3,800 soldiers died during the 10-hour battle, which has fallen into relative obscurity despite its immense body count.

2. The Battle of Montgisard

On 25th November 1177, two of the most remarkable leaders of their age did bloody battle in what is now modern-day Israel. One was Saladin, the legendary warrior-sultan of Egypt and Syria, who was leading an invasion of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The other was Jerusalem’s King Baldwin IV, who was only 16 years old and horribly weak from leprosy.

Saladin’s confidence was his undoing. Having allowed his vast invasion force to separate into smaller groups to pillage various settlements in Jerusalem, he found himself outnumbered and unprepared when Baldwin and his soldiers unexpectedly appeared on the scene. The ensuing Battle of Montgisard was a resounding success for the teenage leper king, who bravely fought with bandaged hands.

The numbers of the dead are hazy, though it’s said that even the victors lost an estimated 1,100 men in the bloodbath. Saladin himself fled the onslaught on a racing camel, but eventually succeeded in taking Jerusalem a decade later.

3. The Battle of Jaran Manjur

On 6th February 1298, the forces of the Delhi Sultanate, an Islamic empire that stretched over much of modern India, faced off against invaders from the Chagatai Khanate – a part of the Mongol Empire founded by a son of Genghis Khan.

The Mongols had conducted a brutal campaign, burning villages and wreaking havoc. The Delhi Sultanate’s troops eventually met the invaders at a location called Jaran Manjur, where according to one contemporary account, the Mongols realised the tables had turned and ‘fled like ants and locusts’.

The same chronicler reported that over 20,000 Mongols were slaughtered during the battle, with many of the wounded prisoners beheaded. Others were even less fortunate: they were taken back to Delhi to be trampled by elephants, in what must rank as one of the most unique execution rituals ever recorded.

4. The Battle of Bannockburn

Medieval battles tended to be as swift as they were savage, typically lasting hours at most. A notable exception was the Battle of Bannockburn, which was a pivotal encounter of the First War of Scottish Independence, and saw Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, enjoy a major victory over the forces of England’s Edward II.

Beginning on 23rd June 1314, the battle spanned two blood-soaked days. Robert the Bruce showed he meant business from the start, personally killing an English knight in a one-on-one fight by hacking his head open with a battle axe. That set the tone for what was to come, with the English sustaining heavy casualties (nearly 12,000 deaths by one estimate) and Robert the Bruce retaking the key stronghold of Stirling Castle. This famous victory paved the way for official Scottish independence several years later.

5. The Night Attack at Targoviste

One of the most audacious military exploits of Vlad III of Wallachia – aka Vlad the Impaler – took place on 17th June 1462. This was when he launched a surprise night attack on the camped forces of Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, who were attempting an invasion of Wallachia.

Mehmed was a formidable enemy, dubbed the ‘conqueror’ for taking Constantinople and bringing down the Byzantine Empire a decade before. But Vlad wasn’t to be cowed – before the night attack, he even went as far as disguising himself as a Turk to brazenly stroll around Mehmed’s camp just outside the Wallachian capital of Targoviste.

After this reconnaissance mission, Vlad returned to his own camp and led his men into a sudden battle with the violence illuminated by flickering torches. It’s thought that up to 20,000 men were killed during the attack, though Mehmed himself did manage to escape to fight another day.

6. The Battle of Agincourt

Immortalised by Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt was a decisive confrontation during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. It unfolded on 25th October 1415, with the young Henry personally leading his army into battle in northern France. The odds were heavily against them: the English troops were outnumbered, exhausted from previous battles, and dealing with widespread dysentery.

However, the French were undone by strategic missteps and the awesome power of Henry’s longbowmen, who reportedly filled the air with so many arrows that it dimmed the light of the sun. The arrow shower killed French soldiers and caused their panic-stricken horses to churn up the mud of the battlefield, further slowing the French approach.

Not only were French troops decimated in battle, but Henry ordered droves of prisoners to be put to death, in what would now be considered a war crime. In all, it’s thought more than 6,000 Frenchmen were killed in what remains one of the most famous victories in English military history.