Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Fury of the Northmen

The scope of the terrain involved in the Crusades and of the Knights Templar stretches across the entire Eurasian Continent and includes North Africa.  At the time the Mongols were raiding the Russian steppes and the Holy Land, they were also raiding from Vietnam to Japan and Korea.  It was a world war no less than those of the Twentieth Century.

Of  the peoples that clashed from the corners of the Eurasian Continent everyone was touched by the wars, but a few of the larger aggregates call for special attention,  These include the Vikings, Arabs, Byzantines, Franks and the Mongol-Turks.  Each is a major study by themselves, but we will take the broad brush treatment.

The Vikings

The expansion and evolution of the Vikings as they raided and invaded is one of the great migrations of history, 

About the time of King Arthur, approximately, Danes, Angles, and Saxons invaded Celt-Roman Britannia and established England.  The language, Anglo-Saxon, is still the base of the English language, The last Anglo-Saxon King of England was Harold Godwinson. This brought him into conflict with the two main branches of the Vikings whose homeland is presumed to be the southern parts of Sweden and Norway plus parts of Denmark in an polity of shifting alliances.

One branch of Vikings raided and invaded whatever was to the west and where they could sail in their Viking longboats on the Atlantic, and Mediterranean.  The Anglican Prayer Book that I used in an Anglican church in Amsterdam in the Fifties had the prayer “Oh Lord, Save us from the fury of the Northmen”.  After a thousand years, this fusy left an impressive permanent impression,  One group settled in Northern France which became known as Normandy as in the Normandy of D-Day, the Sixth of June 1944.

The Varangian Vikings

Another branch of Vikings took their longboats and sailed the rivers of Russia, their settlements on these rivers became known as Rus, hence the Russians trace their political heritage to the raiding and trading Vikings.  These became known as the Varangians, whose raiding and trading established trade from the Baltics to the Black and Caspian Seas by such rivers as the Volga, Don, and Dnieper.  The established a presence in the Crimean and traded with the Byzantine Empire, Eventually they adopted Christianity.
The Vikings were feared and respected as warriors, and their skills were sought as mercenaries in the armies of the day,  One such group was the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Army who served in the Ninth to Eleventh centuries. One notable member of the Varangian Guard was Harald Hardrada, soon to become King of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with an eye on England.

The irony of these two massive forces to the story of the Crusades starts with the invasion of England whose King was Harold (spelled with an O) by King Harald (A) Hardrada of Norway, Sweden and Denmark in September 1066 with 300 longships and 15,000 men in the north of England near York.  Harald’s (a) claim to the English throne was supported by Tostig Godwinson, King Harold’s (o) brother. 

King Harold of England mobilized his army and force marched from the southern coast of England where he was awaiting another invasion, a cross channel invasion from Normandy to England,  Harold moved so fast that the Vikings under Harald were caught with the armor on board the long ships,  This battle, the Battle of Stamford Bridge defeated the Vikings and killing Harald, now known as the last of the Vikings.

Having disposed of the threat to the north, King Harald speed marches to the southern coast of England at Hastings on October 13, 1066.  In the battle that ensued, King Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow,   His forces collapsed and the Norman invasion and settlement of England began,  The conquest of England by the Normans showed a very well developed system of what we call stability operations in one of the most successful occupations in world history,

The Norman Vikings

All very interesting, one might say, but what does this have to do with the Crusades and the Order?  One result of these two battles is that Anglo-Saxon unemployed warriors found work as members of the Varangian Guard of Byzantium along with unemployed Viking warriors who the Saxons had defeated at Stamford Bridge.  The Varangian Guard was then employed to face another branch of Normans who had just taken Sicily from the Arabs (Saracens).

This branch of Normans came as mercenaries for hire and found employment in the feuding states of Italy,  As their power grew they grew into a state of their own, called the Kingdom of Sicily, and then encroached on Byzantine lands. In the battles with the Byzantines, Norman fought Varangian. 

The organizational genius of the Normans manifested by William the Conqueror was wielded by one Roger Guiscard pictured here in his battle in 1061 in Sicily.

Meanwhile another great invasion is approaching

the Byzantine Empire as well as the Abbasid Caliphate and from the East, the Seljuk Turks.  They will wipe out the Abbasid Caliphate and wreak a devastating defeat of Christianity, at a place called Manzikert in Eastern Turkey, in 1071 the results of which set the wheels in motion for the Crusades.

 But not quite yet,

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