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A medieval battle re-enactment

5 strangest medieval battles

Image: Evgeniyqw /

Many medieval battles were chiefly remarkable for the sheer level of bloodletting. But others have gone down in history for other, more peculiar reasons. Let’s consider some of the more eccentric confrontations to have taken place during that violent era.

1. The Combat of the Thirty

In the mid-14th century, the Duchy of Brittany – a feudal state in modern-day France – was in the grip of an epic succession crisis. For decades, the houses of Blois and Montfort grappled for control of the Duchy, and this interminable rivalry led to a very peculiar incident that has gone down in history as the Combat of the Thirty.

In March 1351, thirty knights and squires from each side met at a pre-arranged location. What ensued was effectively a sporting event with a body count. As a crowd of spectators looked on, the two groups did battle for hours, then agreed to a kind of half-time break where they stopped to eat and bandage injuries before resuming the fight. Numerous combatants were killed, and the Blois side emerged victorious.

Though the Combat of the Thirty did not affect the wider war of succession (which wouldn’t end for another fourteen years) it became swiftly mythologised as a perfect example of medieval chivalry, sung about by troubadours and depicted in art.

2. The War of the Oaken Bucket

The weirdness of the War of the Oaken Bucket stems not so much from what actually happened, but from the legend that’s grown around the confrontation. In the year 1325, two medieval Italian armies allegedly participated in a bloody battle over the theft of a wooden bucket.

At that time, much of Italy was divided into factions loyal to the Pope (the Guelphs) and the Holy Roman Emperor (the Ghibellines). The great city-state of Bologna was Guelph, while the rival city-state of Modena was Ghibelline. It’s said that during one of their border skirmishes, some Modenese soldiers cheekily made off with a bucket from Bologna. Strangely furious over this petty theft, the Bolognese gathered a vast army and took on the Modenese in what turned out to be a brutal battle. Thousands died, the Bolognese lost, and the Modenese smugly kept the troublesome bucket.

While these hostilities certainly did take place, the truth is they were likely triggered by a more prosaic reason: the capture of a Bolognese castle by Modena. As for the fabled bucket – that was most likely taken as a trophy after the confrontation was over. Even so, the legend of the theft that reputedly caused so many deaths lives on.

3. The Battle of Crécy

Taking place in 1346, the Battle of Crécy was a major moment of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. It was an early showcase for the deadly power of the English longbow, and it also featured the curious incident of a blind king who drew his sword and plunged into combat.

The king in question was John of Bohemia, an ally of the French, who had been blind for more than a decade. Nevertheless, he was in charge of some of the troops at Crécy, and at one point insisted that his men push him into the fray ‘that I may strike one stroke with my sword’. His men obliged by tying the reins of their horses to his, so that the king wouldn’t lose his way on the battlefield.

In the moments that followed, the king was told that the battle was lost and he should flee. ‘Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away', he reportedly replied. ‘Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is the loudest.’

He was slain shortly after.

4. The Battle on the Ice

Less well-known than the Middle Eastern Crusades, the Northern Crusades saw various Christian military orders take on the pagan and Eastern Orthodox peoples in the Baltics. One of the most unusual skirmishes took place in 1242 on Lake Peipus, located between modern-day Estonia and Russia.

On one side, there were the massed ranks of Western Crusaders, including a contingent of fearsome Teutonic Knights. On the other, an army led by Prince Alexander Nevsky of the Eastern Orthodox Republic of Novgorod. Lake Peipus was frozen solid and served as an incredibly slippery battlefield for thousands of troops.

An idea popularly attached to the battle is that the ice cracked underfoot, plunging knights into deadly freezing waters. Academics consider this an untrue embellishment, but the battle was certainly fierce. Prince Nevsky’s troops emerged victorious after hours of exhausting combat on the blood-drenched ice.

5. The Last Battle of Sigurd the Mighty

Sigurd Eysteinsson, aka Sigurd the Mighty, was a prominent figure in the Viking conquest of Scotland. But he is best known for the bizarre manner of his death, rather than his exploits as a conqueror. It came during a late 9th century battle against Mael Brigte the Bucktoothed, the colourfully-named chieftain of the Pictish peoples of what is now northern Scotland.

The fatally trusting Mael proposed a fair fight: forty of his men vs forty of Sigurd’s. However, the ruthless Sigurd decided to cheat by turning up with double that number, which allowed him to comfortably decimate the Pictish warriors. Mael was decapitated, and Sigurd strapped the head to his horse as a grisly war trophy.

But as the victorious Viking rode from the scene, Mael’s famous buck teeth dug into Sigurd’s leg. It caused a wound that became infected, and Sigurd later died, in what remains arguably the strangest battlefield killing ever recorded.