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A knight in Knights Templar armour

5 most fearsome medieval armies


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Countless armies did heated battle throughout the medieval era. But these five groups particularly stand out as perhaps the most feared, notorious, and fascinating factions of war for their own unique reasons.

The Knights Templar

Endlessly mythologised in films, books and even video games, the iconic status of the Knights Templar, with their white garb adorned with big red crosses, is as strong today as it’s ever been. Formed in 1119, the holy warriors were first tasked with protecting European pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem following the Christians’ victory in the First Crusade.

Fighting with a deep devotion to their cause, living and dying by a strict code of conduct that dictated every aspect of their lives, the Templars gradually grew in power and stature, developing an early banking network that spanned continents.

But it was their dramatic downfall that cemented their near-mythical status. On Friday, 13th October 1307, King Philip IV of France, heavily in debt to the Templars, had scores of French Templars arrested. Accused of blasphemy, homosexuality and other sins, many were tortured and executed. In 1312, the order was officially disbanded and cast into the realm of myth, legend and conspiracy theories.

The Varangian Guard

Tough, brutal Norsemen who’d settled in Kievan Rus’ – a state in modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – the Varangian Guard had a reputation as an unruly bunch, fond of alcohol and bloodshed. They came into the service of the Byzantine Empire when its ruler, Basil II, fearing insurrections, asked Kievan Rus’ ruler Vladimir I for help. Vladimir agreed, resulting in 6,000 hulking warriors with battle axes and swords arriving on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Soon after arriving in 988, they viciously and joyfully crushed the enemies of the Byzantine leader until they were ‘ankle-deep in blood’. After this victory, the warriors remained as guards, jailors, and an army of the empire officially dubbed the Varangian Guard. Even when the Byzantine Empire began to fall, the Varangian Guard maintained a fearsome reputation for the berserker-like rage and appetite for violence its members had in their prime.

The Swiss Guard

The only army on this list that exists to this day, the Swiss Guard was, and still is, rooted in a deep devotion to the Catholic faith. Formed in 1506 by Pope Julius II as elite private protectors, members have always been renowned as being some of the best soldiers in the world.

One of the pivotal chapters in the Swiss Guard’s history came in 1527 when Rome was sacked during a now-obscure war that involved numerous European powers. The Guard fought valiantly to give the Pope time to escape the stricken city, and they paid dearly for their bravery: 147 of 189 men perished during the onslaught.

Disbanded and reformed several times since that medieval massacre, the Swiss Guard have continued to distinguish themselves in more recent times, whether preparing to defend the Vatican from Nazis in World War Two or coming to Pope John Paul II’s rescue during an attempted assassination attempt in 1981.

The Janissaries

The Ottoman Empire’s Janissaries were Europe’s first standing army and proved to be a powerful military and political force across several centuries. Established around 1390, the recruitment process involved young Christian boys being taken from the neighbouring Balkan regions, forced to convert to Islam, and trained to be warriors for the Ottoman Empire.

Rather like the Knights Templar, the Janissaries were given strict guidelines to live by, being expected to renounce secular life and maintain their celibacy. The devotion to duty that this instilled helped the Janissaries become a widely-feared fighting machine. They were involved in a great many medieval battles and played an essential part in the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453 – a momentous event that led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

The Janissaries also didn’t take kindly to being pushed around by ostensible superiors. When Ottoman Sultan Osman II tried to disband the organisation in 1622, the Janissaries rebelled, took him prisoner, and killed him. However, the Janissaries’ time finally ran out in 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II disbanded the corps and had many executed.

The Mamluks

Thought to have originated in the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad in the 9th century, the Mamluks were a class of slave warriors who were ethnically eclectic (including people from modern-day Russia and Europe) and served in several Arab dynasties. Over time, they became so powerful that members achieved political power, even creating their own state – the Mamluk Sultanate – which presided over Egypt and other territories between the 13th and 16th centuries.

The Sultanate was formed in the wake of a major military victory when Mamluk troops defeated an army of French Crusaders in 1250. Soon after, the Mamluks were able to even stave off the notoriously powerful Mongols from invading Egypt. In 1260’s Battle of Ain Jalut, the Mamluks enjoyed a decisive victory over the forces of Hulagu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. This is regarded as the first time an enemy army succeeded in permanently preventing a Mongol advance. Although the Mamluk Sultanate was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1517, the Mamluks still exerted immense political and military influence for centuries afterwards.

The supremacy of the Mamluks came to an end in 1811, when Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali initiated a brutal crackdown, slaughtering thousands of Mamluks and consigning this monumental era to history.