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A portrait of Emperor Charlemagne the Great by Albrecht Albrecht Dürer

6 of the greatest medieval military leaders

Emperor Charlemagne by Albrecht Dürer

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Behind every great medieval conquest was an even greater leader. Demonstrating ingenious strategic thinking and making a lasting mark in history, here are some of the finest military minds of the Middle Ages.

1. Saladin

Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (c. 1137-1193), known as Saladin in the West, was born in present-day Iraq. He quickly rose through the military ranks while under the command of his uncle Shirkuh, whom he accompanied on a military mission to Egypt. It was here that Saladin rose to power, becoming sultan and embarking upon his goal of uniting Muslim territories and taking back land from the Crusaders.

Saladin’s military prowess allowed him to conquer Damascus, Aleppo, and Yemen, but his standout victory was the capture of Jerusalem. A string of defeats for the Crusaders came to a head during the Battle of Hattin in 1187, where the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army was totally obliterated. After 88 years under Christian rule, the city of Jerusalem bowed to Saladin’s forces that year. Along with any Christian who could not afford to purchase their freedom, Saladin gained ownership of a fragment of the True Cross, upon which Jesus was believed to have been crucified.

The possession of the ultimate holy relic was a great symbolic triumph for Saladin, who would die just a few years later. Revered for his chivalrous nature, even by enemies like Richard the Lionheart, Saladin remains a towering figure in Islamic and world history.

2. Edward the Black Prince

Edward of Woodstock (1330-1376), better known as Edward the Black Prince, was the eldest son of King Edward III of England. Falling victim to dysentery, he would die before his father. But, despite his relatively short life, the Black Prince achieved significant military and diplomatic feats that enshrined him as one of the great knights and leaders of the Hundred Years' War.

Edward proved his worth at just 16 years old while leading the vanguard at the Battle of Crécy in France, in 1346. In a display of tough love, his father refused to send help when Edward was faced with great danger. The prince earned his spurs, helping achieve victory for the English. In 1355, he led a massive campaign known as the 'grande chevauchée', sacking and destroying swathes of French territory. The following year, the Black Prince led arguably his greatest campaign in the Battle of Poitiers. Despite being outnumbered, Edward roundly defeated the opposition and captured the French king himself.

It’s a testament to the reputation he built as a warrior that, despite never attaining the English crown, the Black Prince is still remembered today as a major figure of his time.

3. Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) is a towering figure in military history, having conquered twice as much land as any other individual ruler, ever. At the peak of his reign, he controlled a formidable 11 million contiguous square miles, stretching from present-day Poland to Vietnam.

After gaining power by unifying the nomadic tribes of Mongolia, he began his outward expansion by conquering the three main empires of China. Although the Jin Empire proved particularly gruelling to defeat, they were eventually outmanoeuvred by a diversionary attack on the north of the Great Wall led by the warrior Subutai while Genghis Khan attacked with an army of 90,000 men from the west, allowing them to capture the capital Zhongdu (now Beijing).

While Genghis Khan was ahead of his time in some ways, outlawing torture and encouraging tolerance of different religions, he was an uncompromising conqueror. It’s believed that he was responsible for the death of as many as 40 million people, reducing the entire world population at the time by an estimated 11%.

4. Belisarius

Flavius Belisarius (505-565) is considered one of the greatest generals of the mighty Byzantine Empire. Coming from humble origins, he began his army career as a soldier under Emperor Justin I, who recognised his promise and promoted him to command his personal bodyguard regiment. Belisarius’ road to military distinction was not a smooth one, but despite several defeats, he was appointed to command the eastern forces against the Persian Empire by Justin’s nephew, Justinian I, in the successful Battle of Dara of 530.

He went on to conquer the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa in just nine months and won huge territorial gains in Italy during the Gothic War. By the time he retired, Belisarius had expanded the Byzantine Empire by nearly 50% and was hailed as one of the master strategists of his time.

5. Charlemagne

As King of the Franks, Charlemagne (c. 747-814) sought to unite the Germanic tribes under one kingdom through a campaign of almost constant warfare. Deploying both strategic genius and brute force, Charlemagne came to rule parts of modern-day Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy, leading many to think of him as the 'Father of Europe'.

For three decades, Charlemagne waged a bloody war against the Saxons, giving them the ultimatum: convert to Christianity or be killed. In a particularly brutal massacre, Charlemagne ordered the slaughter of 4,500 Saxons. It was his dedication to spreading Christianity as well as his protection of the papacy that led him to be crowned as the first-ever Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800.

6. Jan Žižka

Jan Žižka (1360-1424) was a Czech general and national hero who revolutionised warfare and remained undefeated even while totally blind during his later life. During the Hussite Wars of the early 15th century, Žižka led a faction of proto-Protestants who fought for a complete break from the Catholic Church. Greatly outnumbered and without formal military training, his army consisted of mostly peasants and farmers. But from necessity and despair came innovation, as he transformed agricultural tools into weapons of war.

Žižka’s greatest invention was arguably the Wagenburg (wagon fort), a medieval precursor to the tank, made by reinforcing farm carts. The wagons could be pulled by horses during a mobile attack or arranged in a circle as a defensive fort. He was also instrumental in the first battlefield uses of pistols and cannons, previously intended for siege warfare alone.

Dedicated until the very end, it’s said that – while dying of the plague in 1424 – he requested for his skin to be turned into a drum so that he could lead his men into battle even in death.