Unholy Roman Empire
The carnage was everywhere as far as the eye could see, blood stains painting the streets in sinister crimson, splattering under the hooves of thousands horses; even the seasoned veterans frequently turned their eyes away, making the sign of the cross and uttering prayers at the sight of their work. There was no one left standing; every Saracen in the city was slaughtered with no mercy shown, revenge for the occupation of the Holy City that was once again in the hands of soldiers of Christ. The man on the horse smiled, observing the utter devastation from the higher ground.
He was already rather aged, but still powerfully built, clad in expensive armor embellished with the black eagle on yellow field. A great sword rested at his side, adorned with gold and jewels, a symbol of status in the war-torn world. The man’s great red beard showed more than a few strains of grey hair, and his movements, while still betraying the great deal of strength in his bulky frame, showed more than a few signs of coming old age.
As the knights of his entourage looked down at the Holy City of Jerusalem, engulfed in plunder, slaughter, and rapine, he reflected on his moment of triumph. This was the one accomplishment not even the greatest of his predecessors could match, the crowning achievement of the four and a half decades of his life’s struggle. He could remember the days long gone when panic spread through all of Christendom when the Saracens took Edessa, and the humiliation that his uncle and predecessor suffered on the ill-advised foreign adventure; now was the time for payback.
He thought of the churchmen in distant Rome, so sure of their innate superiority to him and his likes, yet too cowardly to do anything but hide behind the walls of the Vatican while the real men fought and died to spread the word of God and His Son into the lands the meek and degenerate long deserted. At least the Saracens, infidels and heretics they might be, were in his mind preferable to the overbearing, controlling so-called “Vicar of Christ” and his clique of sycophants and master manipulators, the very ones who would dare to deny him, the Holy Roman Emperor, his birthright, and the birthright of his Empire.
At least the Saracens, misguided as they were, were brave, fearless, fighting to death against his men, and dying on the streets of Jerusalem as the payment for their bravery. In another time, another place, he would have spared a few words of admiration for an enemy like that, fighting whom would be stories worth of minstrels singing about for centuries to come. Yet, this was neither time nor place, for the Warriors of Christ proven victorious once again, and now there would be no one to deny that God is truly with them, with him.
Then, his thoughts darted towards the distant north-west, towards the city of the Greek schismatics on the Bosphorus. How could these heretics claim his title, passed on through Charlemagne and Otto the Saxon? How could they dare to claim their superiority to the true Emperor of the West? He had little love for them… hell, he thought, at least the Saracens could be noble, virtuous, and honorable – the Greeks were weak, degenerate, constantly scheming against him and against one another. Maybe, he thought, one day they will be shown the might of the one true Roman Empire, and be made to bow down like the vermin they were. At least that Saladin fellow held strong and proud before the axe of the executioner; he doubted that Isaakios of Constantinople would even manage a straight face for a short moment before breaking down in pleas for his life. He hated these schismatics more so than the Pope and his schemes.
He knew, however, that the time was growing short. He was already nearing seventy years of age, and as much as he liked to think otherwise, his time on this earth was nearly over. Who would continue the struggle, he thought? There was one thing he envied of the Greek basileus, the ease with which he seemed to be able to control the Patriarch of Constantinople – and how little the Patriarch was able to interfere in the worldly affairs. Maybe, one day… a thought simmered in his mind. Maybe not him, but one of his successors would be able to return the reign of Emperors to Europe, and to make the insolent, proud nobles and clerics alike bow down to them, like it was once before – and like it shall be again.
The wind blew a patch of dust into his face, dry desert sand drenched in blood of this fateful day. He knew today that his place in history was complete, and that, like Charlemagne, Constantine, or Augustus, he has accomplished what was laid out before him, to be remembered forever in the moment of his victory, untarnished by defeat or setbacks. The wind made the man’s long cloak waver in the hot air of afternoon, revealing the insignia of the House of Hohenstaufen, and the Imperial Eagle – the eagle of Caesar, Augustus, Constantine, and now – the eagle of Frederick Hohenstaufen, the first of his name to hold the scepter of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Savior of Jerusalem. Frederick smiled again, this time a wolfish grin. His name stroke fear into the hearts of Saracen and heretic alike, with all bowing down before him, heard all over the Christendom and in many places beyond. And this name will be the one to remember him by, the man of great deeds and great red beard, Barbarossa!
The Aftermath of the Third Crusade (1190-1198)
All in all it's just a poor
Poor man's crusade
The Holy Land home of our blessed lord
Enslaved and stained by godless hands
They shall be damned
Is waiting for you
To rise once again
So we will slaughter in the name of Christ
Demons & Wizards “Poor Man’s Crusade”
To understand the phenomenon of European history known as the Unholy Roman Empire, it would be necessary to examine the roots of its establishment, hundreds of years before the crowning of Ulrich as the first Unholy Emperor. Thus, it is only fitting that our story begins in the wane of the XIIth century with the one Frederick von Hohenstaufen, more commonly known as Barbarossa.
While the story of Frederick’s life and accomplishments prior to the Third Crusade is best told elsewhere, there is no denying that the capture of Jerusalem by the German army in the fall of 1190 was probably the single greatest achievement of the man’s life, at least in his own eyes, and in those of his contemporaries. That Barbarossa lived only for three more years after his most spectacular victory also helped to create the myth of the great Emperor that served as an inspiration to many of his more and less capable successors. To this day there are legends circulating about the late Frederick not being truly dead, but simply asleep, waiting to come to his people in their greatest hour of need, signified by the time when the ravens stop circling around the tower under which he is said to sleep.
Thus, when Frederick Barbarossa departed the Holy Land in late 1190, there was no question in the minds of his subjects and, more importantly, other Christian rulers, that this short, unassuming looking man except for the great red beard was truly blessed by God, and commanded authority far greater than that his temporal status gave him. With the succession of his son Henry, future Henry VI, virtually assured, Barbarossa’s reign, despite his failures in Italy and problems enforcing his authority in Germany, was viewed by his contemporaries as an astounding success. With Henry already crowned the King of Germany and, in 1190, the King of Jerusalem, his future seemed bright indeed.
When in 1193 Henry VI succeeded to the Imperial crown, he was already an accomplished leader, having been the chief enforcer of his father’s policies in Italy, and a regent during the Third Crusade. By then, Henry could claim a successful expedition against Sicily to his credit, adding it to Hohenstaufen domains on the account of it being his wife Constance’s inheritance, as well as quelling of numerous Guelph rebellions in Northern Italy; the transfer of authority from Frederick to him was therefore smooth and relatively efficient.
Within months of his ascent to the crown, Henry shown that he was made of the same material as his late father. Any dissent in Italy was crushed; the recently elected octogenarian Pope Celestine III was in no position to intervene as Henry’s armies encroached on Rome itself. An embassy was sent to the court of the Eastern Emperor Alexius III with demands of tribute, which Alexius was all too quick to give in to. Thinly veiled threats were sent to the court of Richard of England, demanding that the latter recognizes Henry as his suzerain.
Richard’s flat out refusal was the source for much political hostility between England and Holy Roman Empire during the remainder of Henry’s eventful reign, mostly displayed in the debate on another Crusade, this time against Egypt. Eager to win for himself the glory and the wealth that such an adventure would bring, Richard attempted to invoke yet another Crusading adventure, which was being opposed by Henry and (through Henry’s forceful manipulation) by the Pope for the fear of Richard becoming too powerful. Secretly, however, aging Celestine hoped that Richard might be his deliverance from this boorish German, and thus soon secret correspondence begun to travel between London and Vatican with alarming frequency.
Unfortunately for Henry, while still technically he was the most powerful monarch on the continent, his ability to project power to the British Isles was minimal, to say the least, and with French King being of little help, Henry could do little but wait, all the while trying to centralize his domains and transferring much of his power base to his new fief in Sicily. By 1196, inspired in part by the Byzantine model, Henry attempted to change the succession law in the Holy Roman Empire to be hereditary, rather than elective. Meeting with stiff resistance from the German princes and Italian nobles, Henry was ultimately unsuccessful, albeit he found some significant support for the idea. It was, however, of some consolation to him that the princes agreed to confirm the crowning of his infant son Frederick as the King of Germany, the sure stepping stone to the Holy Roman Empire itself.
In a meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe the clouds were gathering fast. In 1195, the Eastern Emperor Isaac II was overthrown by his own brother Alexius III, blinded and imprisoned. However, another Alexius, Isaac’s son, was able to escape his uncle’s trap and found refuge at the court of one Philip of Swabia, a German prince married to dethroned Isaac’s daughter, and almost immediately started to weave the incessant web of intrigue that could only be described befittingly as Byzantine in nature, ultimately hoping to unseat his uncle in Constantinople.
Henry was immediately skeptical of this new pretender; it was better for him to have a weak, complacent Emperor in Constantinople that was already a proven quantity, and a relatively worthless one at that. As long as Alexius III was in power, there could be no trouble expected in the East; no matter what promises his young namesake made, the fact remained that in the wrong hands, he might become a pawn of those opposing Henry, and the weapon by which his downfall could be wrought.
As long as the ailing Celestine was Pope, Henry was content with his ability to contain any Crusading sentiments that posed direct threat to his supremacy; however, the introduction of young Alexius into the mix of European politics threw all bets off. As Alexius’ promises grew more and more exorbitant, many in England, France, and even German principalities begun to support the idea of a Crusade, financed in large part through the newly restored Emperor of the East.
Then, in 1198, the situation changed once again. The Pope Celestine III, already an invalid after series of strokes, died in Rome. In his stead, the Curia elected a man of a very different caliber, the one Lotario de Conti. A scion of one of the most prominent Roman aristocratic families, Conti was the nephew of late Pope Clement III, and despite his relative youth, was no stranger to politics. As the new Pope ascended to the Pontificate under the name of Innocent III, Henry knew that the battle for the hearts and souls of Europe just entered into another round.
Opening The Floodgates (1198-1205)
Oh, you've been surprised
Pulled like a leaf to the waterfall
Everybody's just pretending
I thought that you'd learn by now
Ooh, think about it one more time
What have you got when the god is gone
Clouds don't have a silver lining
And all you ever get is rain
'Cause you can't get blood from a stone
You can't open the door if there's nobody home
They've taken it all so just leave me alone
You can't get blood from a stone
Dio – Blood From A Stone
By the time of his ascention, Innocent III was thirty seven years old, and determined to make a lasting impact. His first action upon ascending to the Pontificate was to make the Prefect of Rome swear allegiance to him, rather than to the Emperor, which understandably was not received well in Henry’s court. When Innocent demanded that Romagna be restored to Papal control in 1199, Henry has had enough, and departed for Italy at the head of his knights, with the full intention of removing Innocent and having him replaced with someone more agreeable. Excommunication was quick to follow.
When Henry’s troops invaded Italy from the north, the reason for Innocent’s seemingly senseless bravado was made clear – Germany was in arms again, under the leadership of the one Otto, son of Barbarossa’s one-time ally and eventual rival Henry the Lion and the member of the House of Welph – sworn enemies of the Hohenstaufens. Otto was one of the staunchest opponents of making the Emperorship hereditary during Henry’s earlier attempt at that, and was long suspected of harboring the designs on the Empire himself; with Innocent’s backing, and with large sums of money covertly provided by Richard cour-de-Lion of England and Philip Augustus of France (who, ironically, decided to abandon the age-long grudge against England, at least for a time being, in order to put down the more immediate threat of Henry’s Germans), Otto was able to wreak havoc, swaying many of the German nobles to his cause.
Now, Henry was faced with a dilemma. On one hand, he was within reach of Rome, and thus could attempt to solve the question of supremacy within his Empire once and for all; on the other hand, if he could not return to Germany and deal with the rebels, there could be not much of the Empire left. Thus outmaneuvered, Henry could do little but accept the Papal offer of peace, which lifted the excommunication at the price of Italian territories of Ancona and Romagna, and recognition of the Papal authority in Rome itself. At any other time, Henry would have probably refused the offer and would have attempted to enforce his authority in Italy by less diplomatic measures; however, as Innocent was able to create a powerful and determined league to ward off Henry’s ambitions, the Emperor was forced to let the Pontiff arbitrate the supposed dispute between him and the rebel Otto. Moreover, to further the Emperor’s humiliation, he had to provide at least several regiments of knights for a new Crusade. The only concessions, seemingly minor at the time, but increasingly important later, won by the Emperor were the affirmations of his son Frederick as both the King of Sicily, and the King of Germany, given out by the Pope as almost an afterthought to placate Henry for the time being. When Henry returned to Germany in mid-1200, the relations between the Emperor and the Pope could not have been much worse.
Thus, the call for another Crusade was made in autumn of 1200; however, this time around Innocent believed that having a powerful European ruler lead it would result in said ruler becoming extremely dangerous should he emerge victorious – he did not have to look far back to recall the example of Barbarossa, whose legacy dominated the Papal affairs during Celestine’s pontificate. The call was sent not to the crowned heads of the continent, but to the rank-and-file feudal lords anxious to carve new fiefdoms for themselves in the distant lands. Out-of-work soldiers, disinherited younger sons, petty minor nobles with dreams of power and wealth – all were welcome, and all were to become the weapon by which Innocent III would deliver Egypt from the grip of the infidel. Moreover, the victory would create a set of new Christian states loyal to the Supreme Pontiff and the Mother Church, not to the temporal rulers like despised Henry.
At this time, the focus of our story shifts to the lagoons and canals of the city of Venice. A mercantile republic with long history and even longer memory, it long stood as an oddity in the Mediterranean world populated by bandit kings, feudal warlords, or autocratic empires, competing against few other Italian city-states in selling its goods and services to the highest bidders all the while building an empire of its own. By 1201, when Pope’s call for a new Crusade spread with alarming urgency throughout Europe, Venice was in possession of possibly the largest fleet on the continent, her influence growing with every passing day.
Its seafaring abilities, long an envy of the kings and emperors, were now going to be put to use in the name of Christ, for the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo negotiated a profitable agreement with the leaders of the new Crusading army, promising to transport the army to Egypt and to provide naval support on the journey in return for their share in any plunder, and land for new colonies in North Africa.
However, now there was another factor of unpredictability in the air. With young Alexius Angelus attempting to gather support among the powers of Europe for restoration of his father (and, of course, himself) to the Eastern throne, it was not long before the Venetians sensed a much more profitable venture in the making. As Alexius’ promises of military and financial assistance grew more and more fantastic, the gathering European knights were more and more interested in the idea of subduing the proud and defiant Byzantium, just as the Pope himself looked favorably upon the idea of ending the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches.
When in early 1205 the great fleet sailed out, supposedly towards Egypt, no one could guess what its final destination and eventual fate would be.
The City Of Men’s Desire (1205-1207)
Mortified by the lack of
Our sanctity bears no relevance.
Insignificance is our existence,
Hear the litany of life's persistence.
Our pleas for mercy fall upon
Take my life, my soul, wipe away these
Vanquished in the name of your god,
One of the same to whom we all pray.
Vanquished in the name of your god,
One of the same to whom we once
Try to close my mind - From the
screams I hear,
Repentance is denied, the
conformation of my fear
Bolt Thrower – “IVth Crusade”
As the Venetian galleys sailed on to the East, the purpose of the Fourth Crusade became rather clear. With young Alexius in the tow, the armies were bent on achieving one goal – to restore him to the throne, and to obtain the wealth of Constantinople’s suzerain to attack and ultimately conquer Egypt, the last major Saracen bastion in the Middle East.
The army gathered upon the ships was of varying composition, with many French and Italian knights and their retinues composing the bulwark of it; however, there was a sizeable German contingent sent by Henry, handpicked from the troops of the princes unquestioningly loyal to him. While only about a third of the army in size, this was where most of the battle-worthy troops hailed from; some were the veterans of the Third Crusade, while some others were inspired by the tales of wealth and power their fathers or older siblings achieved during that adventure. In summer 1205, the great fleet sailed slowly up the Bosphorus, creating widespread panic amongst the Greek landowners and Constantinople’s residents.
Courage was by far not one of Alexius III’s few virtues, and the sight of the Crusading army camped under the walls of his capital was more than he could take. Slipping away under the cover of the night with as much of the Imperial treasury as he could get his hands on, he escaped to one of his Thracian estates. Thus, in the most critical moment of its history, the Eastern Empire was left without an Emperor, and with no effective leadership to face the Western army.
With the lack of other options apparent, old Isaac II was taken from his cell and draped in Imperial purple, restoring him as the ruler of the city. Due to his blindness, which would have normally disqualified him from ruling in the eyes of the Byzantines, young Alexius IV was hastily brought into the city and crowned co-Emperor. Now, all eyes were on the Emperor to fulfill the promises he made back in the courts of Europe, and now probably regretted ever considering.
One of the first things young Alexius found to his dismay was the horrid state the Imperial finances were in after his uncle’s inept reign. By instituting extreme measures and confiscating church and some private funds, he was able to pay off about half of the amount he promised to the Crusading leaders; however, this did little to endear him to the city’s population, who knew very well where their money was going. Nor did he have much support from the Byzantine military, already in the state of decay, with various generals openly questioning his right to be on the Imperial throne.
On the other side of the walls, however, was an army determined to take what was promised to them, by force if needed. And within that army, Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, was gaining momentum as its effective leader. This development could not have been any more unwelcome to the Byzantines, as Dandolo seemed to have held a long personal grudge against them, going back, accordingly to the rumors, to the riots of 1186 and 1187 that cost many Latins their lives, and, supposedly, causing Dandolo’s blindness. With this charismatic leader, gradually the focus of the Crusade shifted from simply installing a sympathetic Emperor and collecting their pay, to outright takeover of the schismatic Greeks and their Empire.
As the Crusaders’ demands for money grew more and more outspoken, Alexius IV was unable to answer them; the theoretical union of the churches was not accepted throughout the population, and the Byzantines openly questioned if someone more capable than the Angeli should sit on the Throne of Emperors. Finally, in 1206 the official named Alexius Ducas, nicknamed Murtzuphlus due to his connecting eyebrows, decided to take matters into his own hands, successfully executing a plot to kill his younger namesake and to mount the throne himself as Alexius V. Isaac II succumbed quickly as well, suspicions of poisoning circulating around with much validity.
This new development was just the excuse the Crusaders needed. As the new Emperor refused to pay up to their demands, and started to reinforce the walls and the city’s garrisons, Dandolo and his compatriots gathered in the outlying district of Galata to make their plans for not only the conquest, but the eventual division of the Byzantine Empire.
On the morning of August 6, 1206 the assault on Constantinople begun by both land and sea. The initial fighting was hard, and wave after wave of the Crusaders was repulsed from the walls; not all, however, was well both within and without the walls of the Imperial capital. The demoralized Byzantine troops were hardly able to hold off the invaders; only the regiments of Varangian guards proved to be the reason the city did not fall on the first day of the assault. Many of the noble families were gathering their possessions, ready to leave the city for their estates at the first chance, some even sending emissaries to the advancing Latins to guarantee them the safe passage.
Outside the walls, the underlying cracks within the Crusading camp started to show. The first assault was mostly performed using Italian and French troops; Germans sent by Henry saw little of the actual fighting. Now, the Venetians and the French were demanding that the next assault be led by the Germans. The German commanders, handpicked by Henry, were not enthusiastic about the idea of assaulting Constantinople to begin with; in addition, they had secret orders to ensure the Crusade does not end up being a victory for the Papal-sponsored league, instead resulting in an advantage for their Emperor. On the morning of a second day, it seemed that the Crusaders could not even mount an effective assault due to their army being divided.
Then, the German camp received a visitor whose presence changed the situation. One of the patrols happened upon the hiding place of Alexius III, and brought the fugitive former Emperor along with his remaining treasures to the camp. He was a usurper, true, and a proven coward; however, with the deaths of Isaac II and Alexius IV, he was the only remaining legitimate candidate for the Byzantine throne. In open defiance of the Venetians and the French, the German army proclaimed that it would fight to restore Alexius III to the throne, but not to install a Latin Emperor.
Desperate that his scheme was at the verge of ruin, Dandolo attempted to bribe the German leaders into complying with his orders; with at least a third of his army suddenly flaying away, he knew he could only hope to take Constantinople by reaching some sort of an agreement with them. By October, the negotiations practically stalled as two camps were as far away from each other as they could be.
As the last days of October were slowly trickling away, the German camp received another visitor, this time of even more importance. Arriving with his own retinue of knights and supporting troops was Philip of Swabia, the Emperor’s brother and loyal enforcer of his will. By now any chance of agreement was in tatters, as Philip was quick to point out that the presence of the Italians and the French were no longer necessary.
Within days of Philip’s arrival, aged Enrico Dandolo, already frustrated with his designs not going as planned, succumbed to illness, leaving the Venetians and the French leaderless; this was the moment Philip chose to strike. Rounding up the Crusading leaders, he proclaimed that as the Emperor’s representative, he is the one with the highest authority in the camp, and that the army shall follow his command. Any dissenting nobles were quickly executed or otherwise silenced; with the German contingent now larger and better organized than their Italian and French counterparts, the room for any dissent was nigh absent.
As the army encamped for the winter, Philip sent embassy after embassy to Constantinople, attempting to come to agreement with its Emperor, and, if that failed, with the city’s leading nobles, whose fears of assault by now somewhat eased. The presence of the Crusading army was a thorn in their side, sure – but was a reinstated Emperor such a large price to pay for these unwashed barbarians leaving them alone? This was the question many a Byzantine noble asked himself during the waning days of 1206. On Christmas day, just as Alexius V arrived in Hagia Sophia cathedral for the service, several conspiring nobles attacked him, and hacked him to pieces before the Varangian guard could get to them.
Yet again the great city was without a ruler; however, the populace was not willing to accept Alexius III as their rightful sovereign, remembering his conduct nearly two years before. Instead, the Senate made a different offer.
Anxious to get rid of the army camped below their walls, and to prevent an instance of another one just like it emerging from the West, they, however, decided that Alexius Angelus was unfit to rule, and definitely not fit to reign. But, was not Philip the husband of late Isaac’s daughter? Was he not, also, the brother of the Western Emperor, the most powerful man in the West, and an ally that they could not afford not to keep? Thus, when Philip of Swabia was invested with the Imperial Purple on New Year’s Day, 1207, the news were received with relief both in Constantinople and the rest of Byzantium, and in the court of Henry, the Emperor of the West.
Another man, however, was furious. Not only the upstart Hohenstaufens outplayed and outmaneuvered him this time, Innocent III could never hope to raise another army for his own purpose. Having considered excommunicating both Henry and Philip, he was only able to restrain himself when the rumors that the Imperial army was marching towards Rome started to surface.
Yet, he thought, let the Hohenstaufens enjoy their brief triumph. Innocent’s coalition still included Richard of England and Philip Augustus of France; two bitter enemies that were only held together by their mutual fear, hatred, and loathing of Henry and his house. With Henry’s power growing, was it not the time the French and the English provided some much-needed muscle to the Pope’s grand schemes?
Trouble In Paradise (1207-1212)
An unforeseen future nestled
somewhere in time.
Unsuspecting victims no warnings, no signs.
Judgment day the second coming arrives.
Before you see the light you must die.
Forgotten children, conform a new faith,
Avidity and lust controlled by hate.
[the] never ending search for your shattered sanity,
Souls of damnation in their own reality.
An age of distrust.
Slayer – “South Of Heaven”
As much ambition as Innocent III held, he knew that his sights were set on a rather impossible goal. Yet, after all, was he not Christ’s Vicar on Earth, heir of Saint Peter, and the Supreme Pontiff of all Christendom? Who, but the Pope himself was qualified to sit above the petty squabbles of the earthy princes and kings, to guide the Christendom and its empires towards greater glory, towards the kingdom of God?
Innocent spent long months of early 1207 formulating his plans, gathering his allies, and attempting to placate the English and the French into giving up their old rivalries for the sake of crushing the insolent German Emperor. He instantly found that after the outcome of the Fourth Crusade being more favorable to Henry and the House of Hohenstaufen than to anyone else, even Richard Cour-de-Lion of England, known for his hot temper and willingness to risk everything for the sake of adventure, would not commit thoroughly to the league designed to curb the Imperial power.
Meanwhile, the thoughts of Emperor Henry were increasingly centered around ensuring the succession of his son Frederick, now aged thirteen. It was his hope to found a true dynasty, not unlike the Emperors of the East, who could at least usually assure the succession of their sons in stark contrast to their Western counterparts, whose attempts to centralize the control of their domains were met with stiff resistance from German princes and the Catholic hierarchy. In late 1209, he felt secure enough to consider another Diet, with the implied purpose of making the Emperorship hereditary. However, just as Henry was preparing to send out the heralds to his sometime untrustworthy and rebellious subjects, a stroke of fortune changed his luck again, via news from faraway Constantinople.
There, Philip was facing with a variety of problems, including the increasingly porous border with the various Turkish tribes and the Seljuk Sultanate, the persistent problem of Bulgars, Vlachs, and Serbs pressing on the Empire’s Northern and Western frontiers, and the always restless Greek nobility, scandalized at his insistence of Rome’s ecclesiastic supremacy to the Patriarch of Constantinople, and scoffing at him as a rude and boorish barbarian behind his back, only tolerated because the other alternatives were much worse. Trying to make himself secure, Philip commanded series of expeditions against the Seljuk-ruled Anatolian frontier, most of which were met with only limited success at best; the heavy Western troops had a hard time catching mobile light Seljuk cavalry, while the Greek nobles made it painfully obvious that they had very little interest in campaigning, preferring the comforts of Constantinople to the rigors of the battlefield.
Even more trouble awaited him in the capital. While he had little trouble having his seven year old son Otto crowned co-Emperor, the Byzantine intrigue between the Greek nobles rampaged almost unchecked, with a few covertly questioning whether it was a good idea to accept a Teuton Emperor, even if the one with the family ties to the Angeli. Gradually, the intrigue centered around the person of one Theodore Laskaris, son-in-law of former Emperor Alexius III.
Lascaris was the most vocal opponent of allowing the Latin Emperor into the city, and even now his allegiance to the new regime was uneasy at best. Having previously distinguished himself as a valiant and resourceful military leader, and commanding respect and grudging admiration from much of the Byzantine and even some of the Latin military, he believed himself to be the rightful successor to the Angeli, his right to the throne being stronger than that of Philip, and his faith remaining unashamedly Orthodox. When by mid-1209 Philip attempted to enforce the Catholic supremacy, Lascaris discovered that the allies were not very hard to find, and even easier to manipulate.
Waiting for the right moment to strike, the conspirators soon saw their chance. As most of the Latin troops were away from the capital on a raid into the Turkish territory, Lascaris and his companions attacked Philip in his palace, where the latter was hacked to death. Running through the streets of Constantinople with their bloody swords and the detached head of Philip, the conspirators made their way into Hagia Sophia, where they announced to the surprised populace that the Latin occupation was over, and that the true Orthodox Emperor was to be crowned.
As Theodore Lascaris accepted the crown from the trembling hands of the Patriarch, he knew very well that his empire was in a precarious position. It would not survive another Crusade; even now, there were thousands of Latin troops through its principal cities; his primary hope was in the fact that the Western European politics would make it impossible for any major undertakings to be made. Thus, he had to tread on very thin ice.
First, there was a matter of young Otto. Under different circumstances, Lascaris would have happily ordered the boy to be disposed of, or at the very least blinded or castrated in order to invalidate his claim to the throne; however, anything that might placate the Western Emperor Henry could also prevent him from retaliating. Thus, Otto was forced into a monastery, however, suffering no mutilations or other injuries.
When the word of it reached the Latin army, the German commanders were in a state of rage. The twenty thousand strong German army quickly marched on the capital, laying waste to the parts of Byzantine Asia they passed through. A Byzantine army under command of one Michael Ducas was smashed near Nicomedia, and Ducas himself was lucky to escape alive. In the capital, the general mood was on the verge of complete panic. As the rumor of Henry’s promise of reinforcements to the Latin leaders trickled its way into the city, many Byzantine nobles outright fled the capital for the dubious safety of their country estates, hoping to disassociate themselves from this new government.
In 1210, the second siege of Constantinople begun. However, this time around Lascaris was able to commandeer the citizens into a spirited defence against lesser Latin army, whose troops launched assault after assault upon the city walls. But the walls stood firm; little by little, courage was returning to the defenders, who sent numerous sallies against the Latins, sometimes with much success.
In Vatican, the Pope Innocent watched these developments with satisfaction. He was not overtly enthusiastic about the idea of a schismatic on the throne of the East; however, this was still greatly preferable to the hated Hohenstaufens. When Henry attempted to crown his son Frederick co-Emperor in order to govern his empire while Henry himself sailed towards Constantinople, Innocent flat out refused to perform the ceremony, and threatened excommunication should such a ceremony be performed. Henry’s anguish and rage were not hard to imagine; not only the Pope managed to prevent him from ensuring his son’s succession, but also from being able to safely launch an assault against his brother’s murderer, and a usurper to his own title! Enraged, Henry swept down into Italy, however, during the siege of Milan, now occupied by Gwelph-affiliated Papal supporters, Henry was fatally wounded by an arrow, dying in September of 1210.
Henry’s death sent shocks through Europe. Shortly before departing towards Italy, he had young Frederick crowned King of Germany and King of Sicily in open defiance of the Pope; now Frederick’s birthright was at stake. Henry’s old enemy Otto once again assumed leadership of a ragtag group of German barons, getting himself crowned an anti-King, and soon the Holy Roman Emperor, all with the covert blessing of Innocent, who even now attempted to strengthen the Papal armies and to retake the regions of Italy from the Imperial domination.
By 1211, Frederick was in Sicily, where he started gathering an army to assault Rome from the south, and to put a more agreeable Pope in power; in a meanwhile, he had arranged for a coronation as a Holy Roman Emperor in Naples, which was performed with great pomp by a churchman who was selected as Frederick’s own anti-Pope as Calixtus III. This resulted in prompt excommunication by Innocent, who was just as promptly excommunicated in turn.
In the East, things took turn for worse as well. Despairing at their ability to take Constantinople by force, the Latin troops wrecked terrible vengeance through the countryside, tearing through the Balkans and Asia Minor like a scythe of doom. Eventually, they seized control of Thessalonica, establishing the Kingdom of Greece, which also extended into Thessaly, cutting off the former Byzantine provinces of Morea and Epirus from the capital. This was also the moment the Bulgar Tsar Kalojan chose to strike south, capturing large portions of Thrace and leaving the Byzantines only with the Black Sea coast.
In Asia, Michael Ducas, though defeated once, set himself up as a pretender to the Imperial throne with the capital in Nicaea, deciding that this was the best defense against the punishment Lascaris would likely inflict on him for his inability to stop the Latins from crossing over into Europe. The Comneni brothers, grandsons of Emperor Andronicus Comnenus, swept into Trebizond, capturing it by using the troops provided by their Georgian allies and proclaiming the elder brother Alexius as the legitimate Emperor. The local governors in Morea and Epirus, realizing that there was little chance of help from the capital, set up independent principalities, with the one Andronicus Paleologus claiming Epirus, and one Andreas Cantacuzenos setting himself up in Morea. Thus, where there was one united Empire only years before, there were six statelets, with no less than four claiming right to the Throne of Emperors.
As both the West and the East braced themselves for the coming storm, no one could predict what the outcome of this tempest was going to be.
Kingdoms Of Gods (1212-1218)
I stand alone in
this desolate space
In death they are truly alive
Massacred innocence, evil took place
The angels were burning inside
Centuries later I wonder why
What secret they took to their grave
Still burning heretics under our skies
Religion's still burning inside
At the gates and the walls of Montsegur
Blood on the stones of the citadel
At the gates and the walls of Montsegur
Blood on the stones of the citadel
At the gates and the walls of Montsegur
Blood on the stones of the citadel
At the gates and the walls of Montsegur
Blood on the stones of the citadel
As we kill them all so God will know his own
The innocents died for the Pope on his throne
Catholic greed and its paranoid zeal
Curse of the grail and the blood of the cross
Templar believers with blood on their hands
Joined in the chorus to kill on demand
Burned at the stake for their soul's liberty
To stand with the cathars, to die and be free
The book of Old Testament crippled and black
Satan - his weapon is lust
Leaving this evil damnation of flesh
Back to the torture of lies
The perfect ones willingly died at the stake
And all of their followers slain
As for the knowledge of God they had claimed
Religion's still burning inside
Templar believers with blood on their hands
Joined in the chorus to kill on command
Burned at the stake for their soul's liberty
Still running heretics under our skies
As we kill them all so God know his own
Laugh at the darkness and in god we trust
The eye in the triangle smiling with sin
No Passover feast for the cursed within
Facing the sun as they went to their grave
Burn like a dog or you live like a slave
Death is the price for your soul's liberty
To stand with the Cathars and to die and be free
Iron Maiden – “Montsegur”
By 1212, the ancient order of Europe was on the brink of collapse. In Southern Italy, Sicilian armies of Frederick Hohenstaufen clashed against Papal mercenaries, supplemented by Guelph sympathizers from Italy and troops sent by Otto IV, the Holy Roman Emperor sponsored by the Pope Innocent. In the Balkans, the Latins, the Greeks, the Serbs, and the Bulgars fought against each other, sometimes forming fragile alliances that dissolved as soon as one side clearly had the advantage, all the while blissfully ignorant of the Seljuk raids against the Nicaean principality that ravaged the countryside even as the Greek nobles plotted for the jeweled prize of Constantinople.
The old rivalries sprung up again in France and Britain, with death of King Richard and the succession disputed between his brother John and his nephew Arthur, the latter being immensely popular in England’s continental territories. In Germany, the Hohenstaufen party all but went into hiding, suppressed by their Welf enemies, who celebrated their ascention to the Imperial throne and were ready to destroy the last remnant of their former rivals’ power – the Kingdom of Sicily, where young Frederick’s uneasiness was not in any way mitigated by these ongoing developments.
The chaos and overall confusion muddied up the waters of European politics, all to the joy and satisfaction of the Pope Innocent III. Now, finally, he could make his long-going plans into reality. No longer satisfied with the spiritual leadership, he longed to make the Holy See’s temporal power as great as its ecclesiastic guidance – being the supreme arbiter, the only authority fit to pass judgment on kings and princes, emperors and doges alike. Now, another scheme begun to take shape in his head.
In the regions known as Languedoc, in the no-man’s land between the kingdoms of Iberia, city-states of Italy, and tenuous hold of France, a new and dangerous heresy begun to prosper. Known to contemporaries as the Cathars, these heretics denied the Catholic hierarchy, and preached against the validity of oaths, the main instrument by which business was conducted in largely illiterate European societies, and among the European courts. Moreover, believing that material world was evil in essence, and that nature of Jesus was that of a ghost, not a flesh and blood manifestation of the almighty, who would never appear in a world as tainted with sin as ours, and denying the Holy Trinity were the offenses that no self-respecting Catholic theologician would even bother reconciling with. This was the heresy in its vilest form, and the fact that it was supported by a number of local nobles, some of whom held considerable power, was nothing short of insult to Innocent.
As it became clear that the Sicilians had little chance to break into Central Italy, held off by Papal mercenaries and Emperor Otto’s troops, Innocent’s thoughts returned to France, and to one man in particular. Simon de Monfort was his name, a staunchly religious French noble who won reputation for himself as an efficient, competent, and energetic soldier with just enough ability to be a threat on the battlefield, but without the kind of worldly ambition that would make him dangerous to his would-be master in Rome.
Innocent summoned de Monfort to Vatican in early 1213, and there gave him his holy mission – to rid Languedoc of the vile heretics in the name of Mother Church. When de Monfort returned to his estates in France, accompanied by the entourage of Catholic envoys, abbots, priests, and quite a few shady looking characters whose bearing gave them away to be assassins in monk’s robes, he met with Philip Augustus, the King of France, who was long attempting to extend his control southward, and the plan was formed.
This new endeavor was not to be just another expedition to subdue rebellious counts and barons; no, this was different. For this time, the Pope Innocent called for an all-out Crusade against this vile rot that plagued Christendom, promising final absolution to any faithful Catholics that take part in this sacred task. Gathering in the city of Lyon in mid-1214, about 10,000 Crusaders were ready to bring the word of their master to Languedoc.
In 1214 and 1215, a number of battles were waged between the Crusaders and the local armies, now gathered under the leadership of one Count Raymond of Toulouse. As time went on, Raymond became increasingly desperate, attempting to claim religious orthodoxy if the Crusading forces just left him along and focused on the Cathars. Alas, this was to no avail, for Simon de Monfort saw not only heresy to be exterminated and souls to be saved, but a land to make his own, at the expense of Raymond and his allies.
In 1216, Raymond was captured under the flag of truce, and imprisoned, whereas de Monfort claimed the title of Count of Toulouse for himself, with full endorsement of the Pope. In the meanwhile, the war on Italian peninsula was swinging decisively into Innocent’s favor, as Frederick’s troops were pushed further and further towards Naples, and off the mainland. In Thrace, the Despotate of Epirus made a number of gains against the Latin kingdom of Thessalonica, only to be forced back by the Bulgar onslaught; the Byzantine remnant in Constantinople triumphed against all odds near Nicomedia in Asia Minor against their Nicaean counterparts, making an alliance of convenience with the Comneni in Trebizond; the Latins forced Morea into vassalage only to withdraw to deal with the Epirote threat.
As 1217 drew near, a shocking message trumpeted all throughout Christendom. Jerusalem, the Holy City, and the site of one of five ancient Patriarchates, the same Jerusalem that so much blood was spilled to liberate a generation ago has fallen to the infidel – once again. How could this be, Catholics in courts all over Europe asked each other? Could it be that the German Emperor, excommunicated and pressed hard on all sides, was not worthy in the eyes of the Almighty to defend the holy places of Christianity? Could it be the punishment for the treacherous slaughtering of Eastern Emperor Philip inflicted on Christendom by the unforgiving hand of God?
One man knew this was no fluke. At fifty six years of age, Innocent III was beginning to think about the continuation of his labors by a worthy successor; at the same time, there was still much to be done in this world. In a series of fiery proclamations, Innocent lambasted the “King of Sicily” (as he officially referred to Frederick, refusing to acknowledge him as the Emperor), the Cathars, and the Greek heretics for keeping entire Christendom so divided as to lose its holiest places to the Saracen. More often than not, the Pope and his legates implied the innate superiority of his spiritual stature over the temporal statures of the rulers, rekindling the memories in those who listened, memories of a better age than this century of strife, where brother stood against brother, and corruption was the rule.
In 1218, Otto IV succumbed to fever, and Innocent decided on a radical solution. Rather than crown another Emperor, who would be tempted by all things worldly to stray further away from Mother Church, was it not the time for the Holy Father himself to take the burden of the Empire upon his own shoulders? The Donation of Constantine, though often questioned by some of the worldly leaders, did clearly say that the Pope could bestow the Empire upon whoever he wishes to – and that the Pope is its true spiritual caretaker. Even the great Theodosius kneeled before the Church; was it not the time the haughty German, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, and English princes followed his example? Thus, as Innocent prepared his declaration, both the German princes and the court of Frederick in Sicily grew increasingly more alarmed.
At the same time, in the Eastern portion of Christendom, another death sent waves throughout the neighboring locales. In September 1218, Theodore Lascaris fell from his horse on a hunting trip, breaking his back in process; by November he was dead. Theodore left no male issue; the husbands of his two daughters were relative non-entities, only one of whom, Sergius Sphrantzes, showed some sort of promise. And then there was a matter of Philip’s son Otto, technically a monk, but still possessing respectable claim to the throne.
The Byzantine Senate debated the succession for weeks, even before Theodore’s body was cold, considering not only the matter of legitimacy, but, incidentally, the matter of saving their own skins. After all, was not Theodore indirectly responsible for a disaster of the Empire’s splintering just a few years ago? Most of the men could remember the time when the Eastern Empire ruled over Asia Minor as well as Europe, when the Emperor’s word was law from Epirus to faraway Trebizond – and there were some that knew that their association with late Theodore was a death sentence should Otto be allowed to take the throne.
And yet there was another candidate in the wings. Alexius Comnenus, the ruler of Trebizond, based his claim on his own descent from the Comneni dynasty that ruled through most of the XIIth century, and was seen as more legitimate claimant than the rest. After all, the Senators whispered, was it not the Comneni who brought the Empire back from the brink of ruin of Manzikert into the glory it enjoyed until the degenerate Angeli took over? Besides, here was a prospect of regaining at least some of the Empire’s former dominions, and maybe – just maybe, restoring it to the greatness it had once known?
As the waning days of 1218 made their slow run on the shores of Bosphorus, Alexius Comnenus was raised to the purple as Alexius VI, in hopes that the great Eastern Empire might once again regain its former glory. In Trebizond, his brother David was given the rank of sebastokrator, second only to the Emperor himself, in addition to the title of Despot of Trebizond. But another man’s star was rising fast, a Turkic tribal leader who accepted baptism at the insistence and with sponsorship of David, and whose raids against the Seljuk interior of Anatolia were bringing terror into his enemies’ hearts. He was given a name of David at baptism, both as a symbol of his new allegiance’s strife against the hostile world, and as an acknowledgement of his benefactor; but the name that stroke fear against his enemies was the one given to him at birth – Ertugrul.
Like Lambs To The Slaughter (1219-1230)
What pain will it take
To satisfy your sick appetite
Go in for the kill
Always in sight-prey
The time always right-feast
Feed on the pain-taste
Sorrow made flesh-sweet
Live how you want
Just don't feed on me
If you doubt what I say
I will make you believe
Shallow are words from those who starve
For a dream not their own to slash and scar
Big words, small mind
Behind the pain you will find
A scavenger of human sorrow
Abstract theory the weapon of choice
Used by scavenger of human sorrow
So you have traveled far across the sea
To spread your written brand of misery
Death – “Scavenger Of Human Sorrow”
The year 1219 begun on a somewhat ominous note, with the Pope Innocent refusing to crown any of the claimants to the Imperial throne, but instead announcing that just as Constantine gave his Empire to the Pope nine centuries ago, it is the Supreme Pontiff that should also take on the duties of the Emperor, as the leader of Christendom, and the infallible prelate of God. Understandably, this did little to endear Innocent to any of the claimants, but at the same time, did not cause an all-out assault on Italy as Innocent feared might be the case. Much of the European armed forces were still tied up in internecine conflicts, pouring resources and manpower into a vain attempt to vanquish the flame of Cathars; with Jerusalem lost to the Egyptian Caliph again, it was clear that the divine favor left secular rulers who allowed things to sink to such a dire state.
Still, from Frederick Hohenstaufen’s point of view, the churchman in Rome was nothing but an impostor; in fact, he had a Pope of his own that did his bidding and that would dutifully issue proclamations denouncing the usurper in Vatican, and the entire Sicilian ecclesiastic hierarchy that supported the Emperor, not the renegade Pontiff. Therein was a problem; it was Sicily that was his, not the entire Empire. Yet as long as Innocent was in charge of the Catholic Church, the best Frederick could hope for was some sort of reconciliation – that is, as long as the renegade Pope acclaimed him as the rightful Holy Roman Emperor.
In the East, things continued as before, with Ergutrul’s forces dealing a number of significant defeats against the Nicaeans, and forcing the rebel Michael Ducas to recognize the authority of Constantinople, albeit grudgingly. The Epirotes managed to inflict heavy defeat on the Latins, overrunning Thessaly and forcing Morea into vassalage; desperate, the Latins turned to Alexius VI for help, offering to recognize him as the lawful Emperor and to join in with his forces as long as their lives, lands, and religion are respected. Alexius was only happy to oblige, with restoration of his empire well under way. By early 1221, the territories claimed by the Byzantines extended into Asia Minor, southern coast of the Black Sea all the way to Trebizond, large chunks of Thrace, and most of Macedonia.
Of course, the Imperial control of these areas was not as strong as Alexius would have liked to believe; in Asia Minor, Michael Ducas was constantly plotting to either regain his independence, or even to usurp the throne; in Macedonia, the Latins, delivered from the Epirote threat, were getting restless, getting into numerous conflicts with the local Greek and Slav populations. The Bulgars to the northwest were another threat, their incursions being repulsed only to come back again next year. But still, this was better than the miserable reign of Theodore Lascaris, the Byzantines whispered among themselves; maybe with more time, a true Renaissance might come again, restoring the outlying provinces, and making the word of Constantinople’s sovereign law through the Mediterranean again.
It was with this proud state that Frederick decided his future might lay. Neither the Greeks nor the Latins living in the Balkans had much love for the Pope or his recent antics; an offer of alliance from the “legitimate” Western Emperor was a godsend. Not that the Eastern Emperor could realistically project much military power; however, Constantinople, despite all pitfalls that befell her in recent years, was still rich, and could offer some much needed financing for Frederick’s own grand plan – final subjugation of the unruly Pope, and the restoration of the Roman Empire in the West.
In Languedoc, however, the flames of war were further fanned by the involvement of French king Louis VIII, who succeeded his late father Philip in 1220. Louis joined in the Crusade after its previous leader, Simon de Monfort, succumbed to an arrow wound during a particularly difficult siege, and made it clear that he considered these lands part of France, as opposed to being an independent state that de Monfort’s heirs attempted to keep. An extremely religious man, Louis saw the Pope Innocent as the true representative of God, and led the Crusade with enthusiastic zeal, slaughtering both the Cathars and their faithfully Catholic neighbors with little regard for telling one from another. When a papal legate complained about a particularly gruesome execution of one village’s entire population, it is recorded that Louis’ response was, “God will know his own,” although to the end of his life Louis denied ever speaking the words.
At any rate, Louis in Languedoc was bad news for Frederick, who instead attempted to reach out further north, towards England. There, a long, bitter civil war was being fought between despotic king John and his nephew Arthur, in which John seemed to gain an upper hand. In early 1222, Sicilian ambassadors were secretly dispatched towards the courts of English barons, who were not only tired of the long, drawn out fighting, but who were also beginning to be extremely discouraged with both claimants. As the Sicilians arrived on the shores of Albion, even better news awaited them – Arthur was captured in France by troops loyal to John, and summarily executed. Now, many English barons were on the point of revolt, and did not take much persuading.
With Sicilian gold, the barons attempted to force John into signing a document that would make him little more than a figurehead king – the Magna Carta, granting the barons an unheard-of before right to overrule the king. Sure enough, such powers were frequently used with the lower ranks on the feudal ladder, but for king John, it was nothing short of an insult. The result was another round of civil war. This time, however, the baronial envoys listened to Sicilian suggestions to offer the throne to Louis of France, who accepted their offer with enough eagerness that some could have suspected him, not Frederick, of the ulterior motive.
Louis’ English campaigns are better told elsewhere; it suffices to say that by 1226 he controlled most of southern England when a bout with dysentery ended what could have become French supremacy of the British Isles. Ironically enough, John followed him to the grave within weeks, not able to enjoy the spoils of his unlikely victory; the Magna Carta was signed in the name of John’s eleven year old son Edward by a baron-appointed regent. In a meanwhile, Frederick was given a free hand at restoring Imperial control in Central Europe.
Negotiations with the various German princes resumed, and with good amount of bribery, Frederick was able to once again reestablish the league that his Hohenstaufen predecessors led against their Welf enemies; by 1223 he was recognized as lawful Emperor through most of Germany. In 1226, Frederick’s forces were massing to attempt an invasion of Central Italy, and subjugation of the Pope, when the news he was hoping for all along arrived. Innocent III was dead.
His time as a Supreme Pontiff was a turbulent one, and not completely successful in all respects; however, he was looked at by the number of succeeding Popes as somewhat of a model ruler, able to keep both the Emperors and the churchmen on a tight leash, and commanding respect, if not outright admiration even from his staunchest enemies. He strengthened the Catholic church immensely, creating a powerful structure that defied conventional borders and secular rulers; ordered destruction of the heretics and brought the haughty Easterners to their knees. This man, considered controversial even in his time, cast his shadow across the ages to come, and formed a mold in which the future of his faith would be forged.
Earlier in the year, Frederick’s own anti-Pope passed away; his successor had not been chosen yet. Thus, would it not be only appropriate to enthrone a new Pontiff in Rome itself, with the condition being a triumphal coronation of the lawful Holy Roman Emperor? This was on Frederick’s mind as he advanced towards Rome, meeting with little resistance except for several diehard Italian nobles whose well-being was directly tied to the late Pope, and who attempted to prevent election of anyone sympathetic to Frederick with a measure of desperation.
The cardinals, however, placed their bets on one Sinibaldo de Fieschi, a member of one of the first families of Genoa, and a man of considerable learning and erudition. De Fieschi mounted the Papal throne as Innocent IV, making it clear that he was going to emulate his celebrated predecessor if by his name alone. However, the new Pope was willing to be a bit more accommodating than his predecessor, helped not in the least by the Imperial armies sitting on his borders.
As a Christian, he reminded Frederick, it would be his Imperial duty to undertake a great venture into the East, where Jerusalem herself was tormented under the heel of the Saracen, and where heathen Turks threatened the Eastern Christendom. He would, indeed, be willing to accept Frederick as a lawful Emperor, on a condition of a promise to lead another Crusade into the Holy Land, to restore it back to the light of Mother Church.
While Frederick had his own reservations, the offer seemed much more reasonable than the he expected, and with a potential for additional gains through a Crusade, he hesitated very little before entering Rome to receive the Imperial crown from the trembling hands of a new Pope. It seemed that very little could stand in the way of this maverick young Emperor who stood against the greatest Pope in recent history and emerged triumphant despite all obstacles.
And yet despite this seemingly major victory, Frederick still entertained doubts. For one, there was a matter of the Crusade itself, a difficult logistical endeavor that would leave him open to his enemies at home. For two, there was a matter of preserving his current gains, and of securing his newly recovered Empire from further revolts of the German barons, and further attempts by the Church to infringe upon what was rightfully Imperial domain.
As Frederick pondered his next actions, the focus of our tale shifts once again to the region known as Languedoc, where the brutal crusade against the Cathars was starting to wind down due to lack of competent leadership and internal squabbles between the crusading nobles who attempted to divide their conquests even before they were made. Announcement of king Louis VIII’s death was a complete shock to many, and the fact that at least two of Louis’ sons stood in line for the throne further muddied up the waters. Under the late king’s will, France was to be given to his eldest son, another Louis, thirteen years old at the time; however, the queen Blanche favored another son, eight-year-old Robert to ascend the throne, claiming that shortly before his death, the late king changed the will so that Robert, not Louis would inherit. The succession crisis in France gave the Cathars a much needed reprieve, resulting in a virtual exodus of much of Cathar believers from Languedoc into friendlier lands of Muslim Spain; while the leaders of Cathar faith frequently chose to stay in Languedoc and face torture and mutilation at the hands of the recently created Catholic Inquisition, a number of the Perfecti, the Cathar preachers left with the main body of believers.
Meanwhile in Sicily Frederick II spent most of 1227 and 1228 visibly making preparations for the Fifth Crusade, although the true nature of his preparations had more to do with the need to properly secure his dominions, and keep a watchful eye on the Pope. Innocent IV, while clearly not a man of his predecessor’s caliber, was nevertheless a firm believer in clerical supremacy, and still had all wealth and power of the Catholic Church at his disposal. While Frederick’s Sicilians stood at the borders of the Papal State, he could do very little; as soon as the Emperor departs on a Crusade, all bets were off.
While the Western Emperor pondered the issues at hand, his Eastern counterpart was busy preparing for an undertaking of his own – the restoration of mainland Greece to the Imperial rule. While the Latins made their grudging submission, there could be no question of completely destroying their power and risking alienating his erstwhile Sicilian ally; yet their loyalty was questionable at best, and Alexius VI knew that given half a chance, they would revolt, currently kept in check only by the fear of Epirotes.
Therefore, he had to tread with care. Alexius entered into a secret arrangement with the Epirotes, offering them large quantities of tribute in return for their help in his newest undertaking. Under the pretense of attacking the Epirote heartland, Alexius led both the Imperial forces and the large Latin contingent through the mountain passes into the Epirote territory, where the Latin force was ambushed by what appeared to be an Epirote onslaught. The result was a complete slaughter; of five thousand Latins, only two hundred survived as prisoners of the Epirotes. The battle spelled the end of Latin power in Greece; curiously enough, the Byzantine force claimed to have been separated from the Latin one, and unable to come to its aid – even more curious was the fact that there were no reported Byzantine casualties.
In Anatolia, Ergutrul’s raiders attacked Seljuk and Armenian settlements with impunity, always returning to Trebizond loaded with plunder and prisoners, and proving their worth many times over to sebastocrator David. However, the experience of the past years awakened more ambitions for a territory of his own, a great empire built on dual Turkic and Greek foundations. It was not time yet, he thought to himself – but in his mind he could already see himself and his successors exalted beyond their wildest hopes and expectations. As the year 1230 rolled on, even Ergutrul himself could not predict what turn his fate would take following the tide that loomed across the great plains of Asia, beneath the rising sun, and that was about to storm east.
Arrival Of The Demons (1230-1243)
I clench my teeth
My world is so near its demise
A dying sun in a poisonous sky
Stinging my eyes
Burning with contempt and conflict
As of now
I am a tool
Of severe impact
I clench my fist and visualize
The blood that is spilled is our own
I open wide my bloodshot eyes
Count the dead
A result of dysfunction
As of now
I am a tool
Of severe impact
Cause and effect
And create a new world
Fear Factory – “Body Hammer”
By spring of 1230, Frederick II was finally ready to undertake the promised Crusade. In a meanwhile, he had to contend with the unruly German princes resisting his attempts to crown his own son Conrad as the King of Germany, the title usually leading to the Emperorship itself; the machinations of the Pope Innocent IV, who appeared to bide his time before unleashing the animosity he felt towards his Imperial rival; and the problems in the East, where allegations of foul play were quietly whispered in slaughter of Latin knights in the mountains of Epirus. The promised Crusade, already delayed several times, was almost in danger of not happening at all, prompting threats of excommunication upon Frederick from the Pope.
With all of these issues weighting heavily on him, it is no wonder Frederick decided upon a more diplomatic solution. In summer of 1230, his envoys returned from Baghdad, where the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir granted his demands for return of Jerusalem, as long as Frederick promised to undertake to protect the Muslim residents of the city and Muslim pilgrims. In truth, al-Mustansir held little real power, being more of a figurehead ruler, however, both he and his viziers agreed that another Crusade would be too much trouble to deal with – especially since Frederick’s terms were quite reasonable, and he did come from a long line of rulers with strong crusading record.
To say that the Pope was outraged to hear of this arrangement was an understatement. Not only Frederick was able to outmaneuver him again and to resolve the Crusade without actually leaving Sicily, but he succeeded! This was not good, to say the least, for the authority of the Pope. Unfortunately for Innocent IV, as much as he strived to emulate his celebrated predecessor, he was not quite up to task; the ability to stand against the Emperor required just a tad more ruthlessness, diplomatic ability, and administrative acumen than he himself possessed. It was said of him that he spent days wandering around his palace, devising ideas and schemes that ultimately came to little fruition, all the way until his death in 1232, which some say was caused by him simply giving up on the strife against this godless Emperor. To add insult to injury, the conclave of cardinals assembled to elect his successor was successfully prevented from making a definite decision by Frederick’s machinations, resulting in a stalemate that continued well into next year.
Late in 1233, the college of cardinals finally made their decision, albeit not the one Frederick II hoped for. In late Innocent’s stead, they elected one Ugolino di Conti, nephew of the great Innocent III, who took the vow of Papacy and the somewhat ironic name of Clement IV. Although already aged eighty eight, and not expected to last long, Clement was to prove an energetic, powerful leader that the Catholic church sorely needed, and a persistent thorn in the side of the Emperor.
At the same time, strange reports started to arrive from the east. In 1223, an army of Russian princes was crushed on the shores of river Kalka by a previously unknown menace, a horde of steppe warriors from the northern outskirts of China that seemed unstoppable. Various accounts of the battle placed the blame on the cowardice of Russians’ tribal Polovets auxillaries, but in reality, the outcome of the battle seemed to have been decided by the inability of the princes to work together to overcome this new menace. Surprisingly, the horde withdrew back into the wastes of Asia as quickly as they came, leaving little but terror and questions in its wake.
Now, a slew of reports came in indicating that the kingdom of Volga Bulgars, distant relatives of the original Turkic Bulgar tribesmen that founded Bulgarian kingdom centuries ago, was being dismantled by concerned effort from the same steppe warriors, known as the Mongols. In the West, Emperor Frederick did not seem to be at the least concerned; this was the Easterners’ problem, he thought – let them deal with it. In Constantinople, various parties debated on how to best treat this invasion. As long as it did not trample on Byzantine territories, the Eastern Emperor Alexius VI did not give it too much attention, and the matter was quickly discarded.
In 1233, Alexius VI died in his sleep, only the second Byzantine Emperor in half a century to pass on peacefully while still a reigning monarch, and the first one to hand over the throne to his successor of choice without the questions of legitimacy or strife since the death of Manuel I. In July 1233, late Emperor’s son Andronicus was crowned in Hagia Sophia as Andronicus II, much to the chagrin of sebastocrator David who hoped his own son Manuel to succeed, but to little calamity otherwise. The tension between Andronicus and his uncle was soon resolved, after Andronicus definitely confirmed Manuel as his successor on condition that should Andronicus have any male issue, they would succeed Manuel. The arrangement appeared to be mutually beneficial, and silenced the small, but vocal minority previously incited by David.
By early 1234 the last vestiges of Catharism in Languedoc were extinguished, and fires burned high fed by both the supposed heretics and the people who had the misfortune of living by their side. The region was by now being incorporated into the greater Kingdom of France, many traces of its former practical independence being erased along with its inhabitants. And the French king Louis IX was not finished. Although still rather young, by now he had his sights on England, where succession of short-lived child kings and figureheads kept the kingdom in state of complete chaos. Preparations were being made for invasion when the new Pope first started to show his mettle. He absolutely forbid Louis to embark on this expedition, not only echoing his uncle’s belief of Papal supremacy over the secular rulers, but also attempting to keep Louis, a fervent Catholic, from getting too powerful and becoming a threat to match Frederick’s. Grudgingly, Louis complied, even if he was not very enthusiastic about the idea of putting an end to strife in England – that, of course, through imposing his own authority and incidentally adding England to his own domain.
In addition, Clement issued a proclamation to Frederick ordering him to perform a great Crusade against the Saracen holdouts in North Africa. By this, he hoped to distract the Emperor for long enough to where he could again begin the campaign of subverting the Holy Roman Empire to subservience under the benevolent rule of the Pontiff. After all, he thought, was not the Pontiff, and not the Emperor, the supreme authority in the land? Time after time he reminded himself that it was the Pope that crowns the Emperor, not the other way around; Clement was determined to keep it so.
While the Pope was busy asserting his authority and issuing decrees to the rulers of Christendom, the runaway Cathars found their lot much improved in the haven of Al-Andalus, the Muslim holdout in Spain. Desperate for allies and manpower, the Caliph of Al-Andalus offered them enthusiastic reception, as long as they provided tribute for his coffers and men to defend his frontiers against the ever more aggressive Christian rulers. By 1236 the situation on the Iberian peninsula stabilized enough to where the Nasrid Caliph of Granada, Muhammed I was able to start retaking some of the splinter taifa kingdoms and reassert control over whatever little was left of Muslim Spain. Recognizing the wisdom of accepting non-proselytizing dissidents and heretics from the Christian world as loyal subjects, Muhammed covertly begun to seek other groups such as the Cathars that faced extermination in their lands, but were willing to relocate, providing his kingdom with newfound vitality and security. Soon, Granada became known as one of the most cosmopolitan, multi-cultural regions in all of Europe, with the level of tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities unrivaled even in Frederick’s Sicily, where the skeptical Emperor chose to overlook enforcement of Papal edicts against the Muslims and the Jews.
As for Frederick II, his promised Crusade still had not departed by 1237, enraging Clement over what he saw as blatant disregard for his authority. Matters came to blows quickly, with furious Pope excommunicating the Emperor, who gave the notice little regard. Curiously, in late 1237 Frederick did choose to embark on a Crusade, apparently in open mockery of the Pope who was now deprived of any affiliation with this endeavor.
Despite Frederick’s sailing to Carthage, Clement still was not completely certain of his ability to put this upstart Emperor down once and for all. After all, Carthage was only across the water, and Frederick could be back any day, either as a conquering hero that once again raised the banner of Christendom over the infidel lands, or, as Clement preferred, shamed, defeated, or, better yet, dead.
As the initial reports of the Emperor’s progress started to trickle in, Clement was disappointed. In 1238, Frederick took Carthage, suffering very little losses in the process; by 1239 he controlled most of the surrounding territory. Still, betting on the fact that Frederick would be preoccupied with quelling Muslim resistance in the area, Clement ordered an invasion of Southern Italy, which succeeded in short term thanks to the efforts of rather large French contingent sent by Louis IX at the Pope’s insistence. The invasion was, however, stalled at Naples, albeit at great cost in lives; besides, Frederick was on his way back with many battle-hardened veterans of his Tunisian campaigns, and this time he meant business.
In early 1240, after having recovered Southern Italy, Frederick launched an invasion of Papal State, attempting to remove Clement once and for all; however, the invasion was not the success he hoped for, and after several inconclusive battles, representatives from both the Pope and the Emperor arrived at negotiations table. The excommunication was lifted; however, otherwise status quo was maintained. Neither side was willing to press too hard to achieve an advantage, however, as there was a more pressing issue to deal with at hand, which was seemingly threatening all of Christendom.
When the first reports of Mongol attacks on the Russian cities between 1237 and 1239 surfaced, they were of little concern to the Western Europeans, being dismissed as yet another steppe invasion that would pillage the eastern steppes and leave back where it came from. Better yet, when the Mongol attacks against the Saracen states were reported, where they showed no mercy to anyone who resisted, the Westerners could be almost forgiven for thinking this horde was the wrath of God inflicted upon the Orthodox heretics and the infidels. It all changed in 1240, when Batu Khan captured Kiev, the center of moribund and fragmented Kievan Rus, and clearly decided to march further west.
The legend has it Batu was so amazed at the splendid beauty of Kiev that he gave orders to his troops not to use their enormous siege engines, and not to destroy any of its magnificent architecture as the great Mongol host surrounded the capital of the Russian principality. Whether or not there was any truth to the legend, it did little to save the inhabitants of the city; many were slaughtered, many more carried off to slavery or other unmentionable fates. What was even more frightening to the kings and princes of the west was that not only the Mongols laughed in the faces of Christian missionaries, but that it was only one of the three great hosts sent to subjugate all land until the last sea, carrying the orders of the Great Khan in a faraway realm.
Another force smashed into the Middle East and Anatolia, devastating all in its wake, and laying waste to much of Persia. In 1242 the Mongols under command of Baiju took Erzerum from the Seljuk Sultan Kai Khusrau II; in 1243 they defeated the Seljuk army at Kose Dag. While Andronicus II in Constantinople could only watch with glee at the Seljuk defeats, it became clear to him that something must be done before entire Anatolia is overran by the Mongol horde. In 1243, Andronicus dispatched his uncle David along with a large contingent of Turkish cavalry under command of Ergutrul against the Mongols; the result was nothing short of disastrous.
At Nicomedia, David’s Byzantines ill-advisedly attacked the Mongol center, which drew away leading into an ambush. The result was a complete slaughter. Heavy Byzantine cavalry could not catch the light Mongol horse archers, all the while being peppered with arrows and javelins; as the sun set, the survivors fled for their lives. David himself was not amongst them, captured and subsequently executed by the Mongols along with his son Manuel.
The only commander on the Byzantine side to emerge from this disaster with any sort of credit was Ergutrul, whose light cavalry were able to cover the Byzantine retreat, and who distinguished themselves in battle by being the last to run, and inflicting large casualties upon the Mongol force sent against them. In Constantinople, panic ensued. Not only the route into Europe lay open for invasion, the best and the ablest military force the Empire has been able to assemble since the days of the original Comneni has just been completely wiped off the face of the earth. The Mongol host cut off the lines of communication between the capital and outlying enclaves, now accessible only by the sea, and wasted no time in taking both Nicomedia and Brusa within months of the battle.
When the Mongol messengers reached the Emperor in Constantinople, he was prepared to make accommodations, acknowledging himself a tributary of the Khan as long as the terrifying invaders left him alone. Not only that, but much of Asia Minor was completely depopulated and ravaged, leaving only lands surrounding Nicaea and Trebizond relatively untouched. To salvage the situation the best he could, Andronicus invested Ergutrul with the rank of Despot of Trebizond, hoping that his best commander would be able to maintain Imperial control by the Black Sea coast.
This was beyond Ergutrul’s wildest hopes when he acknowledged Trapezuntine Emperor as his overlord decades ago. A barely literate son of a tribal chief was now a ruler of wealthy realm, nominally as a provincial governor of the Byzantine Emperor, but as he would soon discover, practically independent, with little way for the capital to enforce its authority. With the Seljuks still in a state of complete disorder, and with the Mongols pacified by large tribute, Ergutrul could pick off smaller states, principalities, villages, and cities one by one, enlarging his dominions considerably over the next decade. The seeds of true greatness had been sown.
Deal With The Devil (1243 – 1250)
Nothing held us
back or dared to try
Something in our blood
Won't let us die
We built our world of metal
Watched it grow
Fuelled the fury solid to the bone
Gotta deal with the devil
'cause you know that it's real
Done a deal with the devil
From a heart made of steel
Judas Priest – “Deal With The Devil”
The year 1243 in the West opened up on an ominous note with the death of Clement IV in Rome. While many were surprised to see old Clement last as long as he did, expecting him to pass on within a year or two of his ascent to the Papacy, even more surprising were the news of his passing, just as the Emperor Frederick and the Pope were finally beginning to agree that the menace of the Mongol horde, which by now ravaged Anatolia, Middle East, Russia, and was beginning to raid the Hungarian borders was greater than the issue of whose lead the Christendom should follow, at least for a time being. After all, if the two could not come to an agreement of some sort, there could be no Christendom left for them to divide or squabble over!
Over the last year of his life, Clement, knowing that the end was coming near, begun to groom one of the younger cardinals, his nephew Rinaldo Conti, to succeed him on the throne of Saint Peter; Rinaldo was elected Pope without much difficulty by summer of 1243, taking the name of Alexander IV. The new Pope was determined to continue his predecessor’s policies, and as such the transition proved to be initially smooth; he too was aware of the danger the Mongol invasion represented, and wasted no time in implying Frederick to organize a crusade to wipe out this new menace from the face of Europe.
In a meanwhile, reports continued to come in of engagements in Poland and Hungary, usually with results giving little credit to the Christian forces. Attempts to convert the Mongol leaders were made, albeit with very little success – it was far more common for the conquerors to chase the Christian preachers out of their camp than to even bother to give them a listen. On the other hand, the Mongols seemed to care very little about persecuting any religions in conquered territories, and allowed the survivors practically a free rein on what god or gods they chose to follow. In that, and in slaughter, they were indiscriminate.
The only states to escape widespread devastation so far were those that chose to pay tribute to the terrifying invaders rather than attempt to face them on the battlefield; the Republic of Novgorod in Russia, the Byzantine Empire and its Despotate of Trebizond, and several others that chose submission rather than risking devastation. As the entire Western Christendom was trembling with fear, another piece of news came in. The great Khan Ogadai, the ruler of the entire Mongol Horde, was dead.
By then, the western borders of the Mongol Empire stretched all the way into Poland and Hungary, just as its eastern borders were within sights of Japan; it commanded resources of many kingdoms and countries, ruling over the people of all faiths, origins, and creeds. It was speculated that this one death stopped the Mongol advance in Europe as Batu Khan and other senior commanders rushed back to Mongolia to ensure their claim on succession.
Of these, Batu had to contend with his cousin Guyuk, the son of Ogadai the most; Batu’s own conquests, courtesy of a brilliant Mongol general Subotai were the greatest of his competitors, however, he faced the powerful opposition of Ogadai’s widow, who preferred her son to succeed. The succession struggle was to last for three years, at the end of which Guyuk succeeded in assuring his supremacy, albeit at the cost of Batu setting up a khanate of his own centered around the Volga River, with the surviving Russian princedoms as its unwilling vassals. Thus, Western Europe was spared the immediate attention of the horde, even as many of its rulers did not even realize how close they came to having to fight for the survival of the entire Christendom in the West.
No sooner the body of Ogadai grew cold as furious argument erupted between Frederick II and the Pope. It is, the Pope believed, the right time to strike at the heathens, and smite them from the face of the earth – and who would be better suited to do this than a true Roman Emperor of the West? Unless, of course, his claims were inherently false, and warranted no recognition, and his rule no acceptance…
If anything, Frederick was understandably annoyed by Alexander’s not-too-covert machinations at launching another crusade. His forces already somewhat depleted from attempts to pacify Carthage and add it to Hohenstaufen domains, he was in a dubious position of not being truly able to launch a crusade, but also not wanting it to be launched in his stead by lesser European rulers who might end up gaining fame, fortunes, and legitimacy to challenge him or his children for the Imperial title.
In a meanwhile, Frederick worked hard to secure his conquests, and to reunify the Empire. Over the preceding several years, he was forced to give more and more concessions to his German vassals, giving the princes the rights that were formerly solely an Imperial possession. He attempted to compensate for the effective dissolution of his authority in the North by enforcing it in his own domains in Sicily and Carthage, where he settled thousands of families from German areas loyal to him; he also moved some of the conquered Arabs and Berbers to Sicily, where there was already a significant Arab minority. The courts of Europe were scandalized by Frederick’s apparent lack of concern over the religion of these new subjects; in fact, Muslim Arabs ran much of his Sicilian civil service, and provided a steady tax base for his endeavors. How could, they asked themselves, the most Christian ruler of Europe be so debased as to freely deal with the infidel?
At the same time, these measures helped Frederick to transform his own domains into a more centralized, multi-ethnic state where his own control was absolute. By then, it can be argued that he largely gave up on Germany, accepting tenuous allegiance of its many feudal lords as a consolation prize of sorts, allowing him to still claim it as the part of his Empire, but exercising little real power there. Instead, his ambitions were centered on Italy.
He was the Roman Emperor, he reminded himself. And a Roman Empire that did not possess Rome itself was an abomination, a pitiful realm with grandiose claims, but little to back them up. He would build a new Rome, and this would be centered in Sicily, Carthage, and Italy, not in the now forlorn lands of Germany where petty ambition of so many insignificant princes spelled ruin for what was to become of his Empire. His would be the rebirth of the true Empire, under one true God, under one true Emperor, with the one true Patriarch of the Church to watch over the souls of its people – in that exact order. Albeit being the skeptic that Frederick was known to be, he must have thought that the premise of the Pope having any part in the government was preposterous, to say the least.
In summer 1246, Frederick sent an ultimatum to the Pope ordering him to surrender his secular authority as it was clearly the Emperor’s own prerogative to reign and to rule. Not surprisingly, Alexander IV’s answer was not a perfect example of civility, excommunicating this wayward Emperor for the second time in his career, and going as far as to proclaim him the Antichrist and the very incarnation of evil that plagued Christendom. By now, weary of the constant struggle, most European sovereigns did little to interfere. Even the most fanatically Catholic of them, Louis IX of France was beginning to get weary of the pervasive influence the Church had in his realm, and thus did little other than send the Pope words of support and grudging monetary contribution.
The rest of 1246 was somewhat uneventful, as both sides mustered their forces and allies – Frederick to invade Central and Northern Italy, and the Pope to defend it. In early 1247, Frederick’s armies finally marched north, taking great care in not destroying the lands or their populations for the aim of keeping them loyal Imperial subjects after the cessation of hostilities. Some of the cities where Guelph feeling was minimal even opened their gates to him voluntarily, as the Papal mercenary armies proved to be of no match to determined Sicilian Emperor this time around.
By winter of 1247, Frederick’s armies were at the gates of Rome itself, and the Pope Alexander decided that he had to flee towards Genoa. In January 1248, Frederick entered Rome in triumph, this being his greatest achievement – the true restoration of the Roman Empire in the West. Once again, he established an anti-Pope of his own in Rome, who promptly renounced any claims to secular power, being merely content with spiritual authority, which he supposedly held at the behest of his Imperial master.
Now, with Rome firmly in his grip, Frederick set his sights further north, where mercantile republics of Pisa, Genoa, and Venice were starting to get restless. Pisa was the least of Frederick’s problems; the Ghibelline feeling there ran strong, and the Pisans happily acknowledged the Imperial supremacy in return for retaining of their autonomy and preservation of its institutions.
The Genovese and the Venetians were another story. Genoa had strong connections to the Pope, and sufficient power in the surrounding areas to raise a determined army that could successfully withstand Frederick’s assault. In addition, Venice was a powerful merchant state on its own, and willing to defend its commercial and geopolitical interests with all its strength. Therefore, Frederick decided on attempting to play out on the rivalry between the two, sending ambassadors to Venice with an offer of alliance and respecting its existing rights and privileges.
The Venetians, wary as they were of Frederick’s long-term intentions, knew well that the situation could be very advantageous to them; they had little love for the Pope, and even less for Genoa. Besides, they knew from experience that no Holy Roman Emperor to date was able to found a lasting dynasty; rumors of Frederick’s declining health gave them reason to believe that they could squeeze all the benefits of alliance out of the insolent German all the while keeping them after he is long gone.
In late 1249, the war for Northern Italy begun. Initial successes of the Genovese were countered by greater resources of Frederick’s territory, and armed neutrality of the Venetians, paid off by the Emperor not to interfere in any way. By the middle of 1250, there was little progress on either side, as the Imperial armies could not penetrate the Genovese defenses, and the Genovese armies could not deal a decisive defeat to their opponent. It was then that the Pope Alexander IV decided to take a fateful step.
In The Wings (1250-1265)
As I walk through the blackened forest
Thoughts of hate and anger fill my soul
The charred remains of the holy rollers
Scream repentance though it's far too late
I fight back the laughter at what I see
The suffering healers false destined prophecy
He didn't think yesterday of the end of his life
The brainwashed fools born again of a thousand lies
Hate filled screams break the silence
Terrifying dreams filling up your head
Blasphemy thrusting out, in the masses it reigns
The mask of hypocrisy is slowly unveiled
Fear the angels holocaust, they're screaming
Dreams of pain forever entering your head
Death and hatred loathing, on mankind it feeds
Earth is dead and gone now, we've brought it to an end
Iced Earth – “Angels Holocaust”
The choices left to Alexander IV were somewhat limited. On one hand, he could stay in Genoa, putting his faith into the defenses of the Italian merchant state, and hoping that eventually his allies would come around and decide to push the godless Emperor back to Sicily, where he belongs. On the other hand, he could take refuge with the more dependable, and, incidentally, more powerful state – France, to be exact. It was early in 1250 that he received an offer from the French king Louis IX to take up residence in Paris until such time as the usurping Anti-Pope and his Imperial master could be crushed, or persuaded to reconcile.
The risks of taking this course were several, primary one being that the very issue of who would control Christendom, the Emperor or the Pope, would be now at the hands of the French king, who may or may not prove to be any better to deal with than Frederick. Not only the Pope would be in Louis’ power, the traditional Catholic powerbase of Italy would be given up until such time as it could be recovered – that is, if it could be recovered at all. Alternatively, already there were disgruntled speeches made in Genoa about the futility of war, and the need to reconcile with the Emperor, even if it means paying lip service to Frederick’s Pope. After all, Frederick was nearly at the gates of Genoa herself, and the city’s resources and manpower could be put to much better ends, such as strengthening its mercantile presence around the Mediterranean to counter that of Venice, which was making considerable gains against Genovese colonies everywhere.
By July 1250, Frederick’s army won a major victory that decisively swayed the Genovese opinion to the point where the Pope was no longer feeling safe or welcome in the city. Grudgingly, Alexander decided that the French king’s offer was the best he had, and set his course for Paris. At the time of his unwilling escape, he did not know that he would never see Italy again.
Late in 1250, several major developments took place. First, the Genovese and Frederick finally made a peace deal, costing the city-state much in terms of financial obligations, but otherwise leaving it as an Imperial free city – basically restoring a status quo. The Venetians were not happy about this, but at the same time, the gains in colonies they made during the war more than compensated.
The second item of note was the curious ceremony crowning Louis IX of France Holy Roman Emperor with full blessing and participation of the Pope Alexander IV. Frederick chose simply to ignore this, knowing well that he had little ability to enforce his will north of the Apennines, and instead focused on securing his domains in Italy that he spent so much time fighting over. Over the next two years the system of government he utilized in Sicily was to become the staple of increasingly centralized Kingdom of Italy, which was now truly a part of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1252, Frederick knew that the end was coming near. Already in very poor health after years of campaigning, and not expecting to survive his latest bout with fever, he made orders for his son Conrad to be crowned Emperor in Rome. Soon thereafter, he adopted the monk’s habit and died, content that his life’s work had been accomplished.
Conrad IV faced a number of challenges to his rule at his ascendancy, not the least of them the issue of another supposed Holy Roman Emperor reigning in France, and the German barons’ doubtful loyalty. His direct dominions included Sicily and most of Italy proper, in addition to the Kingdom of Carthage, where he was the titular king, and where he attempted to relocate more and more settlers from parts of Germany still loyal to the Hohenstaufen. At this point, it became clear to both late Frederick and his son that Germany was hard to hold, and even harder to please, with the ability to project Imperial power being rather minimal; something had to be done to salvage the situation, or at least obtain as much benefit from it as was possible.
The first test to his reign came in late 1252, as cases of plague were first reported in the Balkans. By 1253, the virulent, deadly plague that was henceforth known as the Black Death arrived in Germany and Italy; by 1254 it was at the gates of Rome itself. Men noble and commoner alike were stricken down; the churchmen prayed day and night for deliverance, yet none came. By 1256 the outbreak of plague has largely subsided, not reaching the proportions it would grow to a century later, but the political damage has been done.
During this time few of the European rulers attempted any large-scale conquests, much in fear of bringing the plague to their lands; the long-awaited crusade against the Mongol hordes was no closer to reality than when it was first conceived. When in 1255 the Pope Alexander died of plague, Conrad was only too quick to point out that this must have been heaven’s sign of displeasure with the usurping clergyman and his crowning of the French king as the Holy Roman Emperor, the title that should rightfully belong to the Hohenstaufen.
Using this as a relatively convenient opportunity, Conrad declared an Imperial Diet, gathering the German princes in Milan, and attempting to secure their loyalty and to ensure hereditary succession being legally recognized in the Empire. In 1257, barons and princes from all over Germany and Italy were gathered in the grand palace built specifically for the occasion, under the watchful eye of the Emperor himself, to discuss the future of his Empire.
The council was not what Conrad IV hoped for. Not only the number of barons loyal enough to show up was less than he had expected, showing him how little authority he held in Germany, but the price they set for recognizing succession of his own first born, Henry, was steep. The Italian barons were easier to deal with; much of Italy and Sicily were direct Imperial domains, where Conrad’s authority was exercised without a glitch, and where his word was law. Their German counterparts, on the other hand, would have nothing to do with making Holy Roman Empire’s throne hereditary unless they were given almost all of the rights that once were exclusively Imperial prerogative – building of new cities, ability to independently wage war or make peace without Imperial interference (which, to be truthful, was already practically the case in Germany), gathering of the taxes, and a variety of others.
As a result, Conrad was faced with a choice of either giving up on changing succession rules, or making his presence in Germany even more ephemeral than it already was. While the Western Emperor pondered these matters and attempted to reach a decision, the focus of our story once again shifts east, to Anatolia, where much has changed since we last visited that part of the world.
In the years following the initial Mongol incursion, the Byzantine power in Anatolia proper waned to a certain extent, now with the capital controlling only Nicaea directly, and relying on the new class of quasi-feudal barons who both administered the land and defended it against incursions by Turks and Mongols, the Akritai. Fiercely protective of their lands, and frequently unruly, the Akritai represented the first line of defense for the Empire impoverished by paying off the Mongols, the Western Empire, constant warfare, and loss of outlying territories. Emperor John III, who succeeded Andronicus II in 1256 was unable to reverse the decline, being known more for his obsession with religion than with interest in government; the Emperor’s brother, sebastokrator Alexius, was not any more capable.
These were the conditions in which the Despot of Trebizond, Ergutrul, now going by the name of David was able to prosper. He knew well that the weakness of Constantinople meant he could act as an independent ruler with impunity; paying lip service to the capital meant that as long as the merchants were given safe passage, and small, almost nominal tribute was delivered, he had free reign to do as he pleased. In 1258, just as the news of Hulagu Khan’s sack of Baghdad reached the terrified inhabitants of Anatolia, Ergutrul arbitrarily named his infant son Basil as co-Despot, despite usually requiring Constantinople’s approval to do anything of a kind. By 1260, Ergutrul’s raiders retook Nicomedia from the local Mongol and Turkish tribes; by 1262 he won a major victory against the resurgent Sultanate of Rum, and forced the Sultan to pay annual tribute. All the while increased payments to the Mongol Khanate ensured that he could expand as he pleased, taking advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves, and taking great care not to antagonize any of the powers that might be able to bring him down before his plans are brought to fruition.
By now, Ergutrul’s ambition found a new outlet. Not too far to the west was the Imperial capital of Constantinople, still sumptuous in its golden splendor even in these troubled times; the crossroads of the world, and heart of the faith. Whoever controls the city, Ergutrul must have thought to himself, controls the East, especially if he is augmented by power of army and wealth of the entire Empire.
Yet, there were obstacles. Not only the Comneni, despite their recent failings, were still popular enough to rule out a civil war of any kind, but also Ergutrul himself was disqualified for Emperorship due to his birth as a pagan Turk. His son, on the other hand, was born of a Trapezuntine noblewoman, and was raised and educated as a Greek, while still being taught in the ways of his nomadic Turkic ancestors. Thus, Ergutrul resolved, that even if Trebizond was the end of the line for him, his son may yet sit on the Throne of Emperors.
In the West, the Diet of Milan was at a stalemate, as neither Conrad nor his German barons were willing to give in; as a consolation prize of sorts, young Henry was crowned the King of Germany, but in reality this meant very little. When, and if Henry succeeds to the Imperial crown, Conrad knew that he would have to face the same uphill battle, made only possible by his control of Rome, and challenged by the Franks who even now lay claim to his rightful title. By 1262, a number of German barons practically defected to Louis IX, claiming to recognize him as the lawful Emperor; by then Conrad has had enough. If he could not have Germany by the force of diplomacy, he would have it by the force of arms.
Unlike his predecessor, who almost deliberately ignored German affair, Conrad fashioned himself after his great-grandfather, bearing somewhat of a visual likeness to the man, as well as certain similarity in manners and temper that made more than one contemporary uneasy, for the memory of terrible Barbarossa was still somewhat fresh in the minds of the Germans and the Italians – his ambition was to restore the Empire of Barbarossa to direct rule of his family, and he was not willing to stop at anything to achieve that. In 1265, Conrad set out north with an army of approximately fifty thousand foot and ten thousand mounted knights, harvesting the entire resources of Sicily and Italy for this massive expedition as the world lay waiting.
The Last Of The Hohenstaufen (1265-1290)
Survivor - warrior prince
Psychopath - making difference
Archangel - bleed crimson skies
New danger - innocence lies
Falling calling - the diabolical
Open wide the gates and yell
Screaming dreaming - the dark and damnable
But you just never can tell
Feeding needing - the undestroyable
Roll up the show begins
Blinding grinding - the undeniable
The centuries of sin
Supplier - medical child
Sycophant - restless and wild
Illusions - a timeless place
Sadistic - right in your face
Expressionless faces in silhouette stance
Leading the way through the death of a dance
Howling in harmony hostile in key
Out on the plains of indulgence we breed
Screams in the night from a chorus of fear
Hiding in corners the drunken one leers
Separate and down faking all in disgrace
Now is the time to ask questions of faith
The dark and damnable
Centuries of sin
Probot – “Centuries Of Sin”
When Conrad IV set towards retaking Germany by the force of arms, he had several goals. First, he wanted to reinforce loyal territories from being taken over by the French or French-leaning German barons; second, he wanted to crush whatever remnants of Guelph insurgency still existed in the north.; third, he wanted to restore his empire to the position of unchallenged supreme power on the continent. From the beginning, it was no easy task.
His first move was to reinforce the stalwart Hohenstaufen bastions in Alsace-Lorraine, constantly skirmishing with the French heavy cavalry due to their proximity to the French territories, and fighting series of minor battles that failed to deter Conrad from pushing north. By 1266, Alsace-Lorraine was once again a true Imperial dominion.
From there on, it was but a short push towards Strassburg and Trier, both of which put up a spirited resistance, but proved to be no match for the full might of the Imperial army. As Conrad’s army settled into the winter quarters in the last months of 1267, the remaining German barons vowed to protect their independence by forming an alliance of the prominent duchies and states within Germany, where the primary players were the duchies of Saxony, Bavaria, Thuringen, and Austria. Leading this alliance of convenience was Charles of Habsburg, a duke of Austria, and a member of a family only recently arriving into prominence, although they had been the rulers of Austria for some time by now.
When Louis IX of France died of old age in early 1268, the dukes decided that in order to combat the threat of Conrad taking over all of their privileges, independence, and much of their lands they needed to provide an effective counterpart to the Emperor. Thus, claiming that upon Louis’ death the Imperial throne became vacant, and not recognizing claims of neither Conrad nor his son Henry the dukes acted, electing Charles of Habsburg as first the King of Germany, and shortly thereafter as a Holy Roman Emperor as Charles IV. The German barons formerly professing loyalty to Louis IX were quick to follow up on their pledges to Charles IV, who was then crowned by the papal legate who made a perilous journey through lands controlled by Conrad all the way from Paris.
To say that Conrad was outraged at the news of this would have been an understatement. He fully expected some sort of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger games upon his invasion of Germany, but even knowing what to expect, this was still a bitter pill to swallow. At the present, however, he chose to stand his ground, and to ensure his dominance in the lands already under his control, promoting officials, reinforcing city defenses, and conscripting local troops into his own army to prepare for his next endeavor – the march to the east.
The French, it is true, were still a problem to be dealt with, but the new French king Philip III was more interested in subduing unruly barons in England and southern France than in any adventures in Germany and Italy, so for once Conrad’s back was relatively secure, reinforced with a straightforward bribe that sealed the agreement of Conrad’s non-interference in French affairs in Spain whereas Philip chose to turn the blind eye towards the pleas of German barons. In 1270, the campaign that would decide the fate of Germany begun.
At its onset, fortunes of war seemed to favor Conrad, who captured a number of strategically important cities and defeated Charles’ army on two occasions, failing, however, to win a decisive enough victory to resolve the struggle once and for all. In 1272, Conrad decided on an all-out offensive against the Habsburg lands in Austria, hoping to crush his primary rival’s powerbase with one concentrated blow. It is there that the disaster struck.
In Tirol, two enemies’ forces met in the largest scale battle of the entire war to date in the mountainous terrain where Conrad’s superior numbers could not make significant difference. Despite that, Conrad’s troops seemed to prevail, pushing the Habsburg army back, and utilizing Italian infantry to great effect against Charles; it was, ironically, not long in all contemporaries estimates before Habsburg troops would start running when a crossbow bolt found Conrad in a thick of the melee, fatally wounding him and leaving his retinue to carry him off the field. At first, the Imperial army still seemed to have an upper edge, however, as soon as the news of Conrad’s wound and apparent demise spread, many dropped their weapons and ran, leaving their comrades to be slaughtered by resurgent Habsburg army. In one moment, what should have been Conrad’s greatest victory turned to be his most spectacular and devastating defeat.
He lived on for two more days, struggling in constant agony and beset with worries about the future of his Empire; now that the battle was lost, it seemed almost as if he had lost the will to fight on, and gave up the ghost shortly thereafter. Now, with the Emperor dead, even those remnants of his army that limped back to safer havens of Lorraine and Italy lost much of their fighting spirit, and it was a crippled, broken, and disheartened army that crawled back from Conrad’s Austrian campaign.
Looking back at Conrad’s twenty year reign, it is hard not to feel at least some degree of sympathy for this ambitious, driven, yet ultimately unsuccessful Emperor whose very attempt to restore the Holy Roman Empire to its ancient glory drove it into the decades of bickering and struggle that were to mark the inheritance his successor would receive. He secured Italy, and made his enemies tremble at a mere mention of his name, but at the same time proved that Germany was as good as lost for the Empire, as the speed with which the German principalities swore allegiance to Charles of Habsburg was second only to the speed with which news of Conrad’s passing spread across the continent. It was left to young Henry, now Henry VII (although it would be several years before Henry would actually receive the Imperial crown) to maintain whatever little gains he could salvage from his father’s untimely demise.
Nineteen years old at the time of his succession, Henry spend much of his teenage and then adult years following his father on campaign, often right by his side in the thick of battle. No stranger to war, he was popular with the army, and, to a lesser extent, with nobility and clergy of the realm who thought him potentially more dangerous than his father for the simple fact of his militant virtues. The first problem he had to deal with was the aftermath of Conrad’s devastating defeat. Knowing well that the troops he had left were not enough to secure the conquests Conrad made prior to his death, and that immediately continuing aggressive war was not an option due to diminished forces left to him, he had to make a hard decision to abandon most of them, and to make his stand in the Alpine passes where his troops inferior numbers and shaky morale would be offset by excellent defensive positions. Then, he hoped, he would be able to assemble another army in Italy, and reinstate the German campaign his father left behind.
Henry knew that Alsace-Lorraine region, already known for its loyalty to his family, could provide a good base to strike from, and thus was vital if the house of Hohenstaufen were to regain dominance in Germany; thus, he sent a large detachment of his dwindling army under command of a loyal officer to reinforce its defenders and to keep Habsburg forces out of the ancient Hohenstaufen domains. This, however, left him dangerously low on quality troops, forcing him to block Alpine passes and hope that the Habsburg army would not be able to press its advantage immediately; he could not afford another loss like his father suffered, and worse yet, he could not afford the rival Emperor to invade Italy and thus potentially destroy everything Conrad IV fought for.
As the winter settled in, Henry could congratulate himself on a relatively smooth transition of power. Already messengers from Italian barons were arriving with oaths of fealty and promises of reinforcements in the coming spring; the Pope in Rome agreed in principle to crown him as soon as Henry could arrive to the city; the French king Philip III undertook to maintain an uneasy understanding he had with Conrad as long as Henry promised not to interfere in Spain and England. All in all, there was more than a glimmer of hope when spring 1273 finally came, and Henry sent for promised reinforcements to continue his campaign to subdue Germany once and for all.
At the first sight of the reinforcements, Henry realized that his problems were much more severe than he thought. Both the number and the quality of troops sent from Italy were significantly inferior to what he was expecting; there was no question of continuing the campaign. Enforcing his authority in Italy by the force of arms was out of questions as well, as that would leave him vulnerable to the attack from the Habsburgs and their allies.
At that point, an offer came from Charles IV, demanding Henry to surrender his claims to the Imperial title, and allowing him to remain as the King of Sicily; Rome itself and the surrounding territories, along with most of the former Papal States, were to be returned to the Pope Urban IV, now residing in Paris in a relatively uncomfortable situation of surviving on French king’s sufferance; the Hohenstaufen lands in Germany were to be given to one of Henry’s younger brothers. Henry’s reaction was not hard to imagine.
This was the reversal of everything his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather fought for; under no circumstances was the offer acceptable. Henry responded with an offer of his own, telling Charles to go back into his lands and abandon the claims which he made at being Roman Emperor – indeed, he could be an Emperor of the pigs or the cows, because that would be the only thing he and his like are worth. And, Henry’s message continued, should Charles want to press his claims, Henry would be delighted to meet him face to face and stain his steel with Habsburg blood.
In reality, there was little real power behind the bravado young Hohenstaufen displayed. As of 1273, he still had not been properly crowned, and had not been in Italy since the beginning of his father’s campaigns. Some of the Italian and German barons were on the point of revolt; others had already revolted away to Charles and his promises of absolution and forgiveness. The Venetians and the Genovese were troublesome, demanding further concessions in return for their loyalty; the only ones whose loyalty Henry did not doubt were the Pisans and the Sicilians.
And yet the figure of Henry VII, much like that of Richard Coer-de-Lion almost a century before him created much admiration in those that followed him, and generated a semi-mythological legend of a gallant warrior prince, ruthless and courageous in war, yet magnanimous and forgiving in times of peace, honoring the memory of his father whom he sought to avenge, and defending the Empire from those who would conspire to tear it from within. It is hard to distinguish fact from fiction with the larger-than-life figure of Henry VII presented in troubadour ballads and historical chronicles (incidentally, most of which were written decades after his passing), but when whatever little pieces are certain are discerned, we see a shape of a man in a desperate struggle to maintain what his ancestors fought and died for, and to restore the ideals they held, whether or not it was realistic or even remotely plausible.
It is also worth of note that despite Henry’s reputation as a great warrior, the list of his military achievements is surprisingly short. Where he excelled with personal valor and fighting ability, he came short in tactical acumen and ability to create and execute long-term strategies, which proved his undoing in the end. While he was idolized by the soldiers serving under his command, he commander at best a lukewarm reception from the clergy, and was frequently rebelled against by the nobles. It is thus that this aspiring, yet imperfectly capable prince ascended the throne and begun his eventful reign.
Any hopes of reconciliation with Charles broken, Henry mustered whatever resources he could find, including large numbers of mercenaries, and marched back into Germany. This undertaking nearly bankrupted the Imperial treasury, and led to riots even in the loyal Imperial cities in Sicily due to high taxes imposed by the Emperor to finance his war effort. Worse yet, Europe was scandalized to hear that Henry was employing Egyptian, Mongol, and Turkic mercenaries in his German campaign, most of whom were either Muslims or pagans. How could it be, the people of Europe asked themselves, that this supposedly “Holy” Roman Emperor is using heathens and heretics against Christian lands?
In 1274, Henry fought a pitched battle against the Habsburg forces, narrowly defeating them and reinforcing at least some semblance of order in his dominions. He knew that the stalemate could not last for much longer; already the French king was hungrily eyeing the rich provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, ready to renege on their earlier deal at the first opportunity; the Italians, currently kept in check by the news of his victory, could rebel at any time; the outlying kingdoms of Jerusalem and Carthage, long Imperial possessions, were threatened by the Muslim and Mongol incursions, the former barely holding out, and the latter suffering from large contingents of troops that would have normally protected it being instead redirected to support Henry’s war effort. The war had to end quickly if there were any pieces to be left to be picked up from the overall chaos.
With the French king stepping in to mediate, negotiations between Charles and Henry finally begun in spring of 1275. At first both sides were unwilling to compromise, in no doubt due to some harsh rhetoric exchanged earlier, but eventually the pressure of continuing the war neither was able to sustain for much longer forced an agreement to be forged. Charles IV was to be given the title of Caesar, or Kaiser, and would give one of his daughters in marriage to Henry, stopping just short of recognizing Charles’ Imperial claims; the Imperial title was to be kept elective, and would remain in Henry’s possession. Germany was diplomatically declared to be “administered” by the Kaiser – essentially the admission that Henry had little power north of the Apennines. The situation with the two Popes was left unresolved, diplomatically stating that the Church matters should be decided by the Church – yet there was no doubt that the situation in the Holy Roman Empire most resembled a powder keg ready to explode, and that the agreement between Henry and Charles was not as much a peace deal as it was a truce to allow them both to gather strength for the following round.
Late in 1275 Henry returned to Italy, having not been in the peninsula since when he was but a child. He was duly crowned in Rome to a reception of a large crowd, and immediately went ahead about the business of reinforcing the Imperial authority that had already been in danger of collapsing in some of the outlying areas. He found it to be a more difficult affair than he had expected, as crippling taxation and forced drafting of men into the army depopulated some rural areas, and impoverished some of the cities, while the local Italian nobles ruled in his stead as practically independent princes, secure in knowledge that Henry needed their support to keep the throne.
With this in mind, Henry announced in 1276 that he intended to have the Empire’s permanent capital established in Rome. The reasons for this were twofold. Not only it would do much to strengthen his prestige diplomatically across the continent, but it was easier to keep an eye on potentially disloyal Italian barons and always troublesome Venetians and Genovese. Over the next four years he rarely ventured outside the capital, preferring to maintain status quo while he rebuilt his strength and reinforced the neighboring territories, initiating large-scale fortifications projects in Rome, Ravenna, Palermo, and Naples as well as building fortresses, expanding cities, and strengthening his army which by now consisted of a moderately sized, but loyal and capable core of veterans that went through German campaign and came back in one piece. It was Henry’s intention to build up an army that was loyal to him and him alone, without regard for provincial or ethnic loyalties; to this effect, he established Imperial recruiting grounds in all major cities, drafting a quota of able-bodied men for term of twenty years, after which they would be given land in parts of the Empire that were left chronically depopulated by warfare and plague.
While war tore Germany apart, the Eastern part of Christendom was struggling with its own, no less formidable problems. The passing of Byzantine Emperor John III opened the way to the throne for Manuel II, his nephew, who proved to be much more ambitious and forceful ruler than his predecessor. Knowing full well that the Western Emperor was in no shape to retaliate, Manuel ceased to pay him tribute, attempting to strengthen his financial situation and to enforce true Imperial dominion in the Balkans and Anatolia, where Ergutrul’s continuous warfare enlarged his domain considerably. By 1268, most of the Mongols were gone from Anatolia or were assimilated into unruly Turkic tribes that still thrived in the interior; the Sultanate of Rum, long moribund, was not able to exercise any real authority. As such, Ergutrul practically had a free hand in conquering various tribal territories, and making them pay tribute to the Despot of Trebizond – not to the Emperor in faraway Constantinople.
In 1270, Ergutrul inflicted a serious defeat on the forces of Sultanate of Rum that attempted to stop his predations; as a result, the Sultan was once again forced to pay tribute and acknowledge his vassalage to the Empire – in this case, however, the Empire practically meant the Despotate of Trebizond, no matter what the actual agreement said. Three years later, matters finally came to blows as Manuel II became increasingly suspicious of his erstwhile subject’s true intentions, and demanded that some of the most lucrative territories in Asia Minor, currently under Ergutrul’s “protectorate” would be ceded back to direct control from the capital.
Ergutrul, who by then felt practically as an independent ruler, demanded that Manuel give the hand of one of his daughters to his own son, Basil, who accompanied his father on most campaigns and already showed some promise of being an excellent soldier, and inspiring leader, despite only being sixteen years old at the most. Needless to say, Manuel was enraged that his vassal, and a pagan-born Turk nonetheless made such a demand to him, the descendant of great Alexius I, and the man able to trace his bloodline for many centuries; yet Ergutrul’s accomplishments were undeniable, and to spurn him meant nothing short of civil war.
It is ironic that the Empire that has attempted to remove the Turkish menace from Anatolia ended up being so completely dependent on the ability, talent, and conquests of one Turk to where even the Emperor himself had to heed his vassal in order to maintain peace. At the same time, letting Ergutrul maintain such degree of control could have disastrous consequences for the Comnennian dynasty, and for many of the Greek aristocrats whose position in the government largely depended on their connections with the ruling house. Therefore, a plan was hatched.
Manuel, in truly Byzantine fashion, would agree to the proposed marriage, but cite his daughter’s young age as the reason for his unwillingness to conduct it immediately. Instead, the marriage would be conducted upon Anna Comnena’s reaching the age of fifteen, which would not happen for another three years. In three years, Manuel figured, Ergutrul, who was already in his mid-seventies, might be dead, and Basil would not be able to negotiate from position of strength. And even if he were still alive, a wedding ceremony would provide a perfect occasion for the Imperial assassins to sneak in and to eliminate this dangerous threat to the throne – both of them, in fact. In Manuel’s mind, keeping the throne in the dynasty, and destroying the Turkish upstarts once and for all was worth sacrificing his daughter.
Ergutrul, sensing danger, reluctantly agreed to an arrangement, but not before ensuring that his son would automatically obtain the rank of Caesar and be recognized as a Despot in his own right upon either the event of Basil’s marriage, or Ergutrul’s death, whichever would come first. Over the course of the next three years, he made sure to train Basil in the business of government, warfare, and diplomacy, instilling a sense of purpose in the young man who now aspired to reach higher than his father thought possible decades ago – to the Imperial throne itself.
In 1279, the marriage of Basil “the Turk”, as he became known to the annals of history and Anna Comnena, the daughter of Manuel II was solemnized in Nicomedia in the presence of the Emperor himself. During the subsequent festivities, eighty-one year old Ergutrul complained about not feeling well; within an hour or so, he retired to his quarters where he expired shortly thereafter. While the official cause of death was determined to be simply the old age, Basil suspected poison, rightly so, and sneaked out of the city with few trusted companions and his new wife, heading for Trebizond where he could be safe until such time as to unseat Manuel and his family from the Throne of Emperors and to avenge the murder of his father.
Ergutrul was an odd figure, a Christianized Turk who rose from being a simple tribal chieftain to the founder of a dynasty. It could be argued that had he aligned himself with a different power, he could never have risen as far as he had, but then it would be merely theoretical speculation, as the memory of his name was revered amongst his descendants, who took the surname Ergutrulos, in reference to his original name prior to his baptism.
In light of these events, Basil acted more to guard his borders and to pretend loyalty whereas in fact he was looking for the first opportunity to strike against his master. Even if he could defeat the Imperial army in the field, he wanted to cause as little damage as possible, preferring instead to use the army’s strength and wealth of Imperial coffers for himself instead of draining it during the inevitable conflict; besides. His chance to strike came earlier than he expected, in 1282, when Manuel’s son Andronicus deposed and blinded his father, mounting the throne as Andronicus III.
Basil flat out refused to recognize the usurper, and had himself proclaimed Emperor by his troops in Trebizond, basing his claim on his kinship to the Comneni via his wife. As dissent was ripe in Byzantine Europe and Asia Minor, Basil’s army swelled as it passed towards the capital, where terrified Andronicus III attempted to reach reconciliation with his former servant to no avail. Betrayed by his own lieutenants, Andronicus was summarily caught and executed in late 1282 as Basil III Ergutrulos, also known as Basil the Turk finally achieved that which he set his sights on long ago – the Imperial throne itself.
The Western Emperor Henry VII could afford little time contemplating what events in the East could surmount to for him. Already trouble was brewing in the West, where despite continuous assurances to the contrary, Charles of Habsburg was building up his armies and making secret pacts not only with the German barons, but with the outside powers as well, securing assistance from the French king Philip III and the kings of Hungary and Poland. Henry could only watch impotently as his own attempts on reaching a meaningful alliance with any of major European powers were either outright rebuffed, or amounted to nothing but flowery praise and empty promises as the very same powers who he contacted had attempted to either stay as far as possible from the conflict, or benefit from what they believed would be Henry’s almost certain defeat.
Yet, Henry was far from hopeless, at least in his own mind. Once again much of Italy was securely under his dominion, and his army was finally rebuilt to the strength it had known under Conrad. Despite the urgent need to spare troops to protect far-flung lesser kingdoms of Carthage and Jerusalem, latter reduced basically just to the city itself and the surrounding villages, he could still muster a force with which he believed he could successfully defend Italy from enemy incursions and, God willing, carry the war once again into the enemy territory.
As it happens, Charles had other plans. Despite nearing sixty years of age, he lost none of his shrewd political acumen that gathered German princes under his lead, and if anything, his ambitions were only growing with time. Despite Henry’s strong hold on Italy and Sicily, he was far outclassed by Charles when it came to the subtle arts of diplomacy, insidious backstabbing, and navigating the seas of politics with uncanny precision. More so the greater difference between the two had been the method of governance of their domains, and the means by which they hoped to control the Empire both considered their own.
Like his predecessors, Henry shared the vision of the united Roman Empire of the West, one and indivisible, protected by God and by the might of the Emperor. There was no place for dissent; all of the Empire was his duty and his possession, and every man, woman, and child in its territory was answerable to him, not to any of the lesser lords. Charles, on the other hand, was a pragmatist, perhaps one of the most cynical figures of his day and almost certainly without much in the way of higher ideals. Just as the German barons elevated him to position of authority, they could take him down just as easily if he infringed upon their privileges and practical sovereignty. Even though he was indeed the strongest of them all, he still could not stand against the combined might of his erstwhile allies, especially given that they could switch their allegiance to Henry in the event of being dissatisfied with his attempts to enforce central authority. As a result, Charles spent more time in his own domains in Austria, and in general based his rule on the power the Habsburg family held, essentially being the first among (relatively) equals in Germany as opposed to the autocrats that the Hohenstaufens attempted to be.
It was not only the question of who would rule the Empire, then; it was also the question of how it will be ruled, and what will become of it. Tensions reached the boiling point in early 1283 when after a particularly nasty exchange of words between two rival Popes the Emperor Henry ordered that his own puppet head of Church, Marcellus, be recognized as the only true Pontiff, his opponent Urban IV relegated to the status of a heretic and excommunicate. Not surprisingly, Charles, a staunch Catholic and supporter of Pope-in-exile in Paris renounced all ties to the Emperor, and, on the top of it, invited Urban to his own lands. To add insult to injury, Urban proceeded to personally crown Charles as the Holy Roman Emperor, which to Henry meant only one thing – declaration of war.
Even more disheartening to Henry was the fact that the French king decided to join on Charles’ side, contributing money and troops to the rebel in hopes of obtaining some of the former Hohenstaufen territories bordering his own kingdom; the Hungarians and the Poles soon followed suit. When the first enemy troops trickled down into Italy through secret mountain passes, defeating small forces Henry stationed there to guard pathways to his Empire, things looked bleak for the Hohenstaufen.
On Henry’s side, he could count precious few allies. The Pisans and the Sicilians were the only ones Henry could reasonably trust; the Venetians, despite their promises of support, were already making deals with the Habsburgs in preparation of their domination of the Empire. The Genovese, always unreliable and troublesome vassals in best of times, openly proclaimed for the Habsburgs, knowing that Charles’ army was not far off, and that a chance of Henry being able to lead a punitive expedition was slim at best.
In two separate engagements near Milan, Henry’s troops were defeated by a slight margin, however, he regrouped and retreated back into Tuscany, where he spent the winter knowing that the Austrians and the French were not far off. During the winter, more territories declared for Charles, resulting in mass desertion of barons from Henry. He needed a victory, and he needed it fast, if he were to reclaim the loyalty of Central and Northern Italy, and to have a chance of stopping the Habsburg juggernaut before it becomes an invincible flood, ready to sweep away his empire once and for all.
Much of 1284 and 1285 was spent in maneuvering opposing forces in Northern Italy, including Charles’ failed invasion of Tuscany that gave Henry the exact victory he needed to convince the barons that he still has a good chance of winning the war, and Henry’s unsuccessful attempt to lure the Habsburg and French armies into an engagement at Pisa, which resulted in much damage to the trading republic, but failed to annihilate either force.
The breaking point of the war came in 1286 near Ravenna, where Henry’s heavy cavalry was lured into a headlong charge against the Habsburg infantry only to be surrounded and mostly slaughtered by the Swiss pikemen mercenaries in Austrian service. The remaining troops, despite constant encouragement by Henry and his attempts to turn the tide of the battle, lost heart and ran, resulting in a crushing defeat similar to that Henry’s father Conrad sustained at the hands of Charles fourteen years prior. The consequences of the Battle of Ravenna for Henry VII were nothing short of catastrophic.
Almost overnight entire regions changed allegiance, leaving Henry in control of only Apulia and Sicily. Rome itself, though supposedly an Imperial capital and heavily garrisoned by Sicilian troops, revolted, making the Pope Marcellus flee for his life; he was captured outside of the city gates and presented to victorious Charles IV who made his entry into the city shortly. Marcellus was then tortured in a very gruesome manner, mutilated, and paraded through the streets of the city before being thrown into the dungeons where, it is said, he was tearing his own flesh when the pangs of hunger overtook him before finally starving to death.
After the news of Marcellus’ unfortunate demise reached Henry, his heart sank. In vain he sent embassy after embassy to Charles attempting to reach reconciliation of any kind, offering even to abdicate the throne on condition that his infant son Manfred could continue on as the King of Sicily. This was all to no avail. Like a hound, Charles had the smell of blood in his nostrils, and the taste of burning flesh on his tongue; here was the chance to finish off his long-time enemy once and for all. Naples held off bravely until late 1287, but was eventually starved into submission by Charles who punished the city most severely for its courageous, if foolhardy resistance, earning a nickname for himself by which he was to be known throughout history – Metzger, or The Butcher, ordering the slaughter of all population except for relatively lucky few who were sold into slavery.
As Charles’ terrifying reputation spread, Henry could only hope to use his still somewhat powerful fleet to prevent the Habsburg from crossing into Sicily and keep at least some of his domains, however, with the Genovese providing a fleet of their own that easily surpassed Henry’s, he had only one place left to turn to – the Republic of Venice, the last of the merchant city-states of Italy that did not officially declare for Charles (albeit, it should be noted, it did enter into a secret arrangement with the Habsburg to provide him with financial support as long as he did not attack Venice or her colonies).
The Venetians’ price was steep, but at this stage Henry was desperate and ready to promise everything and anything to anyone who would provide him with much needed respite. Early in 1289 the Venetian galleys appeared to reinforce struggling Sicilian fleet.
By then, however, it was too late. A mere four days before the Venetians’ arrival the Genovese attacked the Sicilian navy, utterly eliminating it and landing large Habsburg army on the island. Henry, barricading himself in Syracuse, could only hope that some miracle would come to provide deliverance for him and his house. The Venetian galleys could have been just that exact deliverance he hoped for.
In April 1289, Henry boarded the Venetian galley with his son, wife, and small retinue of loyal retainers as a broken and sad man. Although he was treated with respect and dignity, it did little to lift his mood. The empire he struggled so hard and for so long to preserve was gone; an era was over. The best he could hope for, he knew, was exile in some godforsaken castle, where his every step would be watched and his contacts limited to servants and peasants; the worst was something he did not even want to imagine. As the ship took him northward to Venice, he must have pondered his fate and the future not only of himself, but of his family.
At the same time, in Venice there was a heated debate on what should be done next. While the Venetians did not want to alienate or anger Charles IV, they were aware that the best way to stay on his good side is to do away with his enemy, once and for all. Besides, having a Hohenstaufen in their hands could prove to be a very useful political tool, not to mention that a Hohenstaufen completely dependent on Venice would not dare to do anything that would displease the Serenissima.
Thus, the year Henry VII spent in Venice was probably tense for him at best, his status being uncertain. Was he a ruling monarch amongst the loyal subjects, or an exile whose sorry state is masked by visible honors flaunted at him? And then, was he merely a pawn in a chess game of the cunning Venetians, or was he a prisoner, awaiting for his time to run out? Early in 1290, Henry’s wife, Maria of Habsburg died, thus convincing him that the last link that could have led to his safety from her father Charles was gone. At the same time, Henry’s retainers came forward to him with the rumors that the Venetians had reached a deal with Charles to surrender the former Emperor to his most irreconcilable enemy; then, Henry knew that it was time to leave and hope that he could find refuge at the court of the Eastern Emperor, as Jerusalem was on the verge of falling to the Saracen, and Carthage descended into relative lawlessness, its barons openly aligning themselves with Charles.
Unfortunately, Henry could not know that as he was making the plan of his escape, the Venetians were watching, capturing him before he could even leave the city. The next morning, an ornately decorated galley carried another visitor into the city – Emperor Charles IV of House Habsburg, surrounded by retinue of his elite Austrian knights, arriving to Venice to settle an old score once and for all.
It is said that when Charles presided over Henry’s execution in front of Saint Mark’s chapel, he made a remark that at this point, Henry would gladly agree to be the Emperor of pigs and cows, except that even these lowly beasts would not have him stain their ranks, making a reference to the letter Henry sent to him years ago. We do not know if Henry found it ironic as the executioner’s axe separated his head from his body; but he sure must have found it disappointing.
Uncertain Legacy (1290-1310)
green in the beautiful hour of envy so divine
To be pure, to let chance form your infinite design
Let the seed awakening begin again
I hate the way you judge me
I hate that you’re above me
Can’t humanity reach a certain point of understanding?
Why do we live this way?
Why do we have to say the things that subvert the minds of youth?
Why is the world unborn as crashing seas still form?
The vision of the future is of blood
As we face the bleak horizon under crushing skies
The truth belying a future uncertain and dark
We are but one small race, all wear a human face
Yet our image is imperfect and flawed
Nevermore – “A Future Uncertain”
When Charles IV of Habsburg entered Rome as the now-undisputed Emperor, the atmosphere of somewhat forced cheering and overall apathy in the crowds gathered by the local nobles to greet him only underlined the problems he had to face in ruling the Empire. Not only the barons whose support elevated him to his present position were unruly at the least, they all demanded further concessions now that their protégé was in charge of the Empire, threatening disobedience or outright rebellion should Charles decide to play autocrat like his predecessors attempted to. Moreover, the Pope was demanding return of Rome and territories of the Papal States, which was a source of tension between Charles and Henry even before the latest round of the civil war, and which Charles now had to decide what to do with.
Further on, there was a problem of Manfred Hohenstaufen, Henry’s son and Charles’ grandson. As long as he lived, he could provide a rallying banner for Hohenstaufen loyalists, and thus threaten a danger of civil war again – on the other hand, he was Charles’ direct blood kin, and thus could be used not only to pacify the regions still exhibiting loyalty to the Hohenstaufen, but also to strengthen the position of Habsburg family in the Empire. With Manfred being the legitimate heir to the Kingdom of Sicily, Charles could potentially keep more direct control over the island and southern Italy.
These were some of the problems Charles must have pondered on as he entered Rome in late 1290 with a large portion of his army as a precaution against any local plotters or Hohenstaufen loyalists. The first order of business for him was to install Urban IV as the legitimate Pope in the ancient Papal palace in the city, and to arrange for another ceremony of coronation, this time performed in the Imperial city itself. Once the ceremony was over, both the Emperor and the Pope knew that the current peace was fragile at best, and the issue of Papal States needed to be resolved right away if the current league assembled against the now-dead Henry was to transform itself into a new incarnation of the Holy Roman Empire.
Charles was fully prepared to concede Rome to the Pope, knowing that his own lands were too remote from Rome to exert any real influence without dangerously overstretching his forces and exposing his position to his erstwhile allies who would almost certainly take advantage of his weakness should such emerge. At the same time, he had his own reservations about making the Pope a true secular ruler with enough power to challenge the Emperor himself – not to mention the question of feudal obligations of the Emperor to the Pope, which the Hohenstaufens of recent simply ignored. If the former structure of the Empire were to be restored, an arrangement had to be made.
The main problem in the issue of the Papal States was the Papal demand of territory in Central Italy, which Charles was unwilling to give; it was only reduced lands around Rome itself that were eventually conceded to the Papal administration, and even then Urban had to use every kind of diplomatic guile he could muster and every bit of resolve to obtain what he got, invoking the Emperor’s feudal obligations and his duty as a good Catholic in addition to other things, playing upon Charles’ superstitions and conscience and threatening excommunication if at least some of his wishes were not met. It was only the mention of the massacre in Naples and refusal of absolution that made aging and increasingly more paranoid Charles allow the Papal States to be reinstated.
At the same time, Charles took a different approach with the barons that supported him so far and whose involvement helped to decide the fate of the civil war. The increased autonomy of the barons was the price Charles had to pay for the Imperial throne, and the price he paid willingly – almost too willingly, some wondered. At the same time, Charles took opportunity to increase his own dominions exponentially, appointing his children, nephews, and grandchildren to various duchies and baronies left vacant by the civil war, or belonging to Hohenstaufen loyalists. Thus, while the barons seemingly got what they were up in arms for, Charles was now truly the most powerful of them, and did not depend on his Imperial title to exercise authority, rather advancing the cause of the Habsburg family and preparing it for dominant position in Germany.
The Kingdom of Sicily was another prize that was too wealthy, too tempting to be ignored by the winner. True, Manfred was the legitimate heir, but this was an opportunity was too good to miss, and when on morning of February 18, 1291 Rome awoke to the news of Manfred’s death, few doubted how it came about, although even fewer dared to voice their suspicions and guesses for the fearsome reputation Charles earned during the civil war. Charles was none too quick to announce that since he was Manfred’s grandfather and the Emperor, he was the only authority qualified to dispose of his kingdom as he saw fit. Understandably, some of the barons and the Pope were able to easily see through rather thin disguise, however they were silenced by rich presents, donations of land in Marches region to the Papal state, and, for the most disagreeable, threats of destruction; thus, Charles had little opposition when he announced that his grandson Rudolph should inherit Sicily as Manfred’s cousin and one of his closest relatives.
With Manfred’s passing, the legitimate male Hohenstaufen line came to an end; his sisters were either sent into varying convents, or married off to Habsburg cousins in order to keep any outsiders from potential claims on Hohenstaufen legacy. An era was over; an age of Imperial dominance when the Western Empire was the centralized power able to enforce its authority in the Mediterranean world; an age when the restoration of Rome in the West seemed almost a certainty, and Papal and baronial power appeared irrepairably broken. The Western world would not see another series of rulers like the Hohenstaufens for many years; those that followed them would stand by a different model of governance, being less concerned with the increasingly more romanticized ideal of restoration of the Roman Empire in the West, and more interested in their own petty domains and propagation of their own houses above the ideal of the Empire as a unified whole.
Yet at the time, few realized the importance of the events that transpired between 1286 and 1291, truly believing that Henry and his like were simply to be replaced by Charles and his kin as the rulers of fundamentally same state, commanding the same loyalty of the territories and the barons and still being the supreme autocrats of the West. It would be quite some time before the true state of affairs, that of the Empire being a loose collection of individual princedoms tied together more through formality than through true obedience of the feudal nobles to the Emperor. Even the Habsburg domains, by far some of the largest amongst the nobles, were not a guarantee of continued dominance, merely the powerbase of an individual family as opposed to the Imperial heartland.
From 1291, Charles had two more years to live, dying in 1293 at the age of seventy four, reigning Emperor, and the first to die peacefully in his own bed since Frederick II’s passing more than four decades ago. The subsequent election of the new Emperor begun as a drawn-out political struggle escalating into small-scale armed confrontations between more enthusiastic supporters of various candidates who presented themselves as qualified to succeed to the throne.
Eventually, the electors agreed on candidacy of one Adolf of Nassau, a rather unremarkable individual, and not offensive to either of the prominent parties; while the potential Habsburg candidate, Albert would have been very likely to secure the election, the Habsburgs carefully distanced themselves from it, knowing that Adolf was unlikely to cause any kind of problems, and that their own power was dependent more on their own estates than on the Empire. For a time being, the Habsburgs were content with expanding their own estates and influence while avoiding antagonizing the German barons. Besides, Adolf of Nassau was already well into his sixties, making it almost certain that most of the eligible Habsburg males would be likely to outlive him and to be able to stand for election of the next Emperor.
With Adolf I departing towards Italy to be properly crowned, let us take leave of the West, and put our attention towards the Eastern portion of Christendom – the steppes and fields of the Russian lands, to be precise. Once the initial shock of the Mongol invasion and Russian states’ destruction or submission to the terrifying new invaders has somewhat subsided, several native states attempted to gather the pieces of what once was Rus, sometimes surviving only on their Mongol overlords’ sufferance, but nevertheless harboring ambitions limited only by somewhat disheveled state of their military and economic power.
Of these states, three were the most prominent. The first one, the princedom of Muscowy, occupied some territory around the city of Moscow, strategically utilizing their connections with the Mongol khans to obtain various concessions, including even Mongol military assistance against the more unruly Russian princes, and rights to administer some of the territories technically in the Mongol domain, but practically under Muscovite suzerainty. The second, the ancient trading state of Novgorod, covered the largest area by far, having bought off the Mongols with enormous tribute its wealthy merchants could afford, and thus suffering the least under the Horde’s yoke. Already Novgorod repulsed numerous incursions by the Swedes and German knights of the Livonian order into its territories, all the while bribing the Mongols into non-interference and cultivating dynastic ties between its princes (who were, for the most part, figureheads, with the real power belonging to the Veche, as the assembly of the city’s leading merchants was called) and many of the prominent nobles of Europe.
The third, and by far the smallest remaining major Russian state was that of Tver, just south of Moscow, and until recently a colony of Novgorod, now achieving prosperity previously not thought of due to its terrain being extremely well suitable to defend against the Mongol all-cavalry army, and due to the influx of refugees from the devastated areas in the southern portions of former Rus dominions. Still in possession of numerous ties to Novgorod, Tver soon became a major center of commerce in the region, and, incidentally, was considered to be the most troublesome by the Mongols, as some of its rulers made it no secret that their ultimate goal was the expulsion of the Horde from Rus lands altogether.
While diplomacy and trade between these three powers flourished, conflict inevitably followed. By far the most intense rivalry was between Moscow and Tver, as both cities were relatively young, ruled by ambitious series of autocratic princes (although, to be fair, Tver’s long-standing special relationship with Novgorod made some of its institutions more liberal and republican in nature, including the establishment of its own Veche, which, however, held considerably less power than the one in Novgorod while the prince of the city was the one truly holding the reins), and determined to expand at each other’s expense.
In 1295, war broke out between the two, in which Moscow used Mongol mercenaries to great furor over the Russian people. How could it be, they said, that a state which would throw these invaders out is invaded by the Russians willingly cooperating with the heathen barbarians? Novgorod covertly assisted Tver through shipments of money and “volunteers” to fight the Muscowites, who sued for peace in 1297, paying significant reparations and agreeing to recognize the ability of Tver’s rulers to style themselves “Grand Prince” (“Velikii Knyaz”), previously only the prerogative of rulers of long-gone Kiev and Vladimir that passed on to Muscowy in the perilous years following the invasion of the Mongols.
While the war did little to change the overall situation in Russia, it signaled several important developments. First, it broke Moscow’s pretensions at being the only legitimate successors to the Kievan Rus’ of old with Tver’s Mikhail II assuming the title of Grand Prince. Second, it strengthened the fledgling state to the point where the situation in Russia was more than ever resembling a three-party stalemate hanging in an uneasy balance, not giving preference to either of the involved parties. And finally, and most importantly, it was the first time the Russian state was able to fend off the Mongol army – even if the Mongol army was only scattered regiments of mercenaries fighting on Moscow’s side. That did wonders for the morale of Tver’s citizens, and for the state’s international reputation, even if it did draw some ire from the court of the Mongol Khan.
Elsewhere in the world, kingdoms rose and fell, sometimes through conquest, diplomacy, or internecine struggle; the moribund state of Halych-Volhyn was annexed by Poland after the line of its rulers went extinct, whereas Lithuania earned the dubious distinction of being the last major European state to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 1293. Jerusalem, long holding on by a thread, finally fell to the armies of Abbasid Caliphate in 1296, even as much of the Eastern portion of the Caliphate was lost to short lived resurgence of the Mongol assault, resulting in loss of Baghdad in 1298. Notably, as the Abbasids’ dominion shrunk, the Caliphate’s government, and its capital were moved further and further west, culminating in Cairo being chosen as the permanent seat of Abbasid power. Despite eventual recapture of Baghdad in 1307, weakening of central authority led to widespread internal dissent in 1308 and 1309, and by 1310 only Egypt and Palestine remained firmly in Abbasid control, the rest of their territories splintering into independent states ruled by former Abbasid generals, nobles, and even disinherited sons and cousins.
Of these states, the Kingdom of Antioch was by far the most prominent, extending its power through much of the Holy Land and bordering Armenia Minor in the northwest; to the east of the kingdom lay the state of Syria, and further east, bordering the Mongol horde around the still desolate ruins of Baghdad was the Emirate of Mosul. Expansion was definitely not a priority for these exhausted and occasionally unstable states; most of their energy was spent in internecine warfare that failed to produce major gains for any of the sides. Just strong enough to fend off the Mongols in the east, and encroaching Christians from Carthage, but not able to regain their position of prominence, the Abbasids and their neighbors entered a period frequently called “the Sorrowful Years”, in reference to the lack of unified authority in the Middle East during the time, and the general economic and scientific stagnation that was to prevail in the region until late XIVth century and the rise of Khalil of Aleppo.
A few words should be spared on the Eastern Empire, and the rule of Basil III Ergutrulos. Ever since his ascention, Basil harbored long-ranging plans to restore the Empire to its ancient glory, and to regain lost territories, restoring true unity to the Balkan peninsula and Anatolia. While such designs were anything but new to all Emperors since the fateful battle at Manzikert more than two centuries ago, Basil did something that none of his predecessors considered seriously, at least not on the large scale. To much criticism and opposition, he introduced the idea of attempting to incorporate the Turkish people of Anatolia into the Empire as loyal citizens instead of forcing them to leave the territories they occupied, leaving them depopulated and somewhat useless to Greek agriculture due to the effect herds of grazing sheep and other animals raised by the Turk settlers as primary source of sustenance had on productivity of soil.
Instead, he said, these people could be made full citizens of his Empire, being allowed to keep their possessions and lifestyle as long as their loyalty was not in question; the fact that the Emperor himself was of Turkish origin was a proof enough that incorporating them would not only provide a solution to aid the Empire in reconquest of Anatolia, but also would give it the long-term benefit of increasing its population, manpower, and strength.
While this was never popular with the old Greek aristocracy, the Emperor’s actions not only helped to speed up the reconquest of western Anatolia, but also incited many of the local Turkish rulers to voluntarily swear allegiance to the Emperor as his loyal subjects. The capture of Iconium in 1302 finally ended the long-moribund Sultanate of Rum; surprisingly enough for the standards of the time, there was no slaughter, nor was there any unnecessary brutality during the capture of the city, its former rulers allowed to live as private citizens in Constantinople, where they could be kept under close scrutiny by the Imperial bureaucracy.
Soon, only Epirus, Bulgaria, and Armenia Minor stood in the way of restoring the Empire to its pre-Manzikert borders. Of these three, Armenia Minor was not only somewhat insignificant, but also provided valuable border state between Byzantium and first the Abbasids, then the Kingdom of Antioch. Pacifying Bulgaria was a matter of expending great deal of time and resources which Basil believed would be used best elsewhere. Epirus, however, despite its relatively easily defensible terrain, had somewhat low population, and has been a tributary of Constantinople for quite some time during Basil’s reign; at the passing of Epirus’ last Despot Nicephorus in 1308, Basil took the opportunity to annex its territory to the Empire, preventing Nicephorus’ heirs from ascending to power by a large Imperial army that entered Epirote territory.
In a meanwhile, events in the west proceeded apace. Adolf of Nassau lingered on until 1301, when the Imperial throne was opened for election again; this time the Imperial crown went to Henry of Luxembourg, of whom was said that his ambitions were far greater than his means, and whose relatively brief reign was marked by general peace within the Empire, interrupted only by revolts in Sicily, where stringently Catholic Habsburgs were more unpopular than ever among the citizens used to cultural and religious tolerance of the Hohenstaufens.
When Henry VIII died in 1304, the House of Habsburg once again pitched its claim to Empire by using their considerable political and diplomatic clout to force the election of one of their own, Albert, yet another of Charles IV’s numerous grandchildren. It should be noted that the Habsburgs differed from most noble houses of Europe in one important aspect. While most European alliances were based on blood ties, the Habsburgs took it one step further. While it was rather common for the leaders of the same house to work together in order to achieve common goals, these associations and alliances usually lasted only for short period of time, or until the first opportunity to betray a kinsman that emerged too powerful or too influential. Even if the House of Habsburg was not completely free of internal intrigue and bickering, when it came to advancing the house as a whole, its members presented a unified front against all outsiders, earning them grudging respect from the other prominent families of Germany.
As such, when Albert I ascended to the throne of the Empire, he knew that he had the might of entire House Habsburg behind him, not only that of his own lands, which were somewhat insignificant in comparison to some of the more prominent members of the dynasty; his own mediocrity would be offset by the diplomatic guile and efficient organization of the entire house, whereas his rule would be use to further advance the dynasty’s goals. However, there were a number of challenges to his rule that had to be dealt with first before any such thoughts could be entertained.
Most serious of those was the Sicilian Heresy, as it came to be known. Influenced both by the Cathar teachings and writings of Sufi scholars, a firebrand zealot named Orestes preached of evils of material world and of the need to fight the powers that propagate such obviously insidious trappings of flesh and temporal authority. In particular, he lashed out violently both at the Catholic church, and at the King of Sicily who enforced rigid Catholicism on the island.
Needless to say, something had to be done, and quickly. Rudolph of Habsburg, King of Sicily was a relatively able administrator, and enjoyed much support from nobility and clergy in Southern Italy, where his personal integrity and undoubted religious faith overcame the misgivings of some over him practically being a usurper. At the same time, his hold on Sicily proper was only due to presence of large number of German troops on the island, and even then, the flames of rebellion never truly went out.
In winter 1305, the powder keg that was Sicily finally burst into explosion as some of Orestes’ most prominent followers were detained and summarily burned at stake for heresy. Almost overnight, both Palermo and Syracuse were in arms, expelling the Habsburg garrisons and declaring their reluctant oaths of allegiance to Rudolph null and void. Stranded in Apulia, Rudolph knew he could do little until the following spring, when the weather would be more advantageous for him to conduct a campaign and to besiege the rebel cities; his cry for help went to somewhat reluctant Albert I who agreed to join his cousin on campaign.
The Sicilian campaign would last through 1306 and most of 1307, at which time unspeakable atrocities were committed against the island’s civilian population by the invading army. The worst of the offenders were Albert’s Swabians, feared widely through the island for their apparent taste for violence, plunder and rapine. When Palermo was finally taken in late 1307, Albert seriously considered the idea of following an example set by his grandfather at Naples; only through intervention of recently elected Pope Innocent V did he reluctantly agree to pardon most of the city’s population and only to execute its most prominent citizens. Nevertheless, the Habsburgs, already not very popular in Sicily, became an object of livid hatred for the islanders for generations to come.
His flanks relatively secure for a time being, Albert decided to follow up on the promise he made at his election to ensure Papal support, that of a Crusade to restore Jerusalem to Christian control once again. Not only it was one of the most crucial items on the Papal agenda, he believed, but also his duty as a good Catholic to free the lands under the infidel yoke and to restore them to the light of Christendom; not only it was the means to increase Imperial prestige, dangerously damaged by the Sicilian revolts, but it was also the means to unite the German barons behind him by promises of new lands, new titles, and riches.
The Crusade did not set out until 1310, the same year that saw the final fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was viewed as a golden opportunity by both the Emperor and the Pope. Little did they know of the events that would unfold upon its arrival.
Ghosts Of The Past (1310-1350)
Eye for an eye, our only birthright
The choice that determined what you had denied
Seething with hatred sea of rage parts
If it does not kill us it only makes us stronger
One on one, across the divide
Absurd accusations clouded by pride
Your pointed daggers seen through the disguise
If it does not kill us it only makes us stronger
Midgard – “Supremacy”
The Crusaders’ initial aim was to once again plant the flag of Christendom over Jerusalem, however, its leaders differed on how to accomplish such a goal. Some advocated marching through land, traversing the Balkans and Byzantium, and dealing with Caliphate successor states in the Middle East before finally pressing to Jerusalem itself; Emperor Albert was of the other opinion, that of taking naval route, using Cyprus as a base to establish a beachhead, and eventually mounting an assault on Jerusalem directly, attempting to bypass as many potential obstacles as possible and taking the risk of storms and unfavorable weather to get to the Holy Land quicker, and with less losses. Besides, Albert did not trust Basil III, his supposed Eastern counterpart, who made astonishing strides in the last two decades to restore lost territories to the Byzantines, and to alter the character of his Empire to allow for better incorporation of Anatolian Turks into the Imperial military and civil service. Given half a chance, Albert knew, Basil would attempt to obtain an advantage over Albert and possibly even attempt outright treachery.
It was the Papal envoys that finally persuaded the Emperor, against his better judgment, to take the land route, emphasizing that the two successful Crusades all took the same route through the Byzantine lands, and that he would be able to wield much larger army than he would otherwise, being limited by ship carrying capacity and knowing better than to trust any of the Italian mercantile republics on the matter of naval transportation, remembering the example of Venetian involvement in abominable Fourth Crusade a century ago. Besides, Albert thought, what comes around goes around; if Basil was harboring any malicious intent, Albert was perfectly capable of the same malice himself, and, should the heretical Greeks expose any kind of weakness that could be exploited…
In early 1310, the Sixth Crusade, Fifth being the name usually given to Frederick II’s conquest of Tunis, set forth on land towards the Balkans, Anatolia, and into the Holy Land. From the beginning, it has encountered numerous difficulties, first in obtaining Basil III’s permission to pass through Byzantine territory, then in dealing with the uncooperative Balkan peasantry who had little desire to see these so-called “Crusaders” take the spoils of their labor, ravage their wives and daughters, and loot with little restraint all the while slaying any who dared as much as to speak a word of it. As the Crusaders advanced, Basil III came to a realization that letting them pass through presented serious danger not only to his own people, but also to the myth of the Imperial crown as the protector of its citizens – while the latter has been not much more than a myth by the time of his ascent, Basil worked long and hard to make the Empire safe for its citizenry, and achieved remarkable success in repelling various invaders while extending its borders as Pax Byzantia ruled in its ancient borders.
Here were the men supposedly of Godly purpose, yet behaving worse than any invader the Empire could recall in a past century; instead of obedience and respect they had shown nothing but arrogance and greed, not to mention the damage they had already caused. In Summer 1310, tensions reached the boiling point as the Crusaders assaulted a small town in Thrace that refused to give in to their demands, inflicting enormous slaughter on the defenders. By then, Basil has had enough. Swiftly descending upon the Western army with a force of his own, Basil’s troops overcame the bewildered invaders in a pitched battle, killing over half of the Crusaders, and taking many prisoner, including Emperor Albert himself.
The news sent incredible shock through the West. The Sixth Crusade was over before it even started, and ended up in a total catastrophe, Crusading army completely annihilated, and the Emperor himself a prisoner of the Byzantines. Clearly, the people whispered, the Habsburgs must have procured the wrath of the Almighty by rebelling against the legitimate Emperors of Hohenstaufen line, of whom none remained; the Pope who crowned these usurpers was just as guilty of treason as they were. Within a year much of Germany and Italy was torn apart by civil strife and uprisings of every sort; clearly something had to be done quickly before the Holy Roman Empire became nothing but a lost symbol for which nothing stood.
By 1312 more cautious voices prevailed, reasoning that not as much divine displeasure caused the catastrophic demise of the Crusade as the Byzantine treachery did; therefore, the Holy Land could only be liberated if the heretic Byzantines were swept aside and shown the error of their ways, and true faith. Another Crusade was needed, thought the Pope and the nobles of Western Europe; but who would lead it? Albert of Habsburg was still the prisoner in Constantinople, the very city that had to be captured should the Byzantines be defeated, in full power of Basil the Turk; the French king was disinterested in an idea, knowing that he had more to gain from his attempt to force the English to acknowledge him as their feudal suzerain; the Iberian rulers, while determined to fight for a holy purpose, were still bitterly divided among themselves, allying with the Muslim state of Granada as frequently as with the fellow Christians; the only developments there as of recent had been territorial gains made by Leon against Castile, and swallowing of Navarre by Aragon. Germany was more divided as ever, with whatever semblance of centralized authority had existed prior to the Sixth Crusade by now completely collapsed; while the German princes still nominally acknowledged recognizing the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as their suzerain, in practice Germany of 1312 was a mess of states that were not only answering to no authority, but often in direct military confrontation with each other. Without the Emperor, the Habsburgs could do little but watch their new Imperial order disintegrate, being able to swallow some of the smaller duchies and use ongoing conflict to arrange for strategically important marriages, but not being able to impose peace or at least an armistice.
At the time when having a legitimate Emperor meant everything in the West, Albert was still a prisoner, and still a holder of the title that could not be taken away from him without causing even further disturbances – if the Pope himself was only barely legitimate in the minds of the people after the crisis the West just emerged from, who had the authority to dethrone an Emperor whose only failing was the defeat he suffered at the hands of his supposed Eastern counterpart? A stronger, more capable Pope would have had little qualms about issuing a proclamation of a kind; Innocent V, however, shared very few character traits with his more famous and infinitely more ruthless namesake a century ago, and could not bring himself to the crucial step that could save the Empire. All across Italy and Germany the faithful prayed for deliverance from this time of troubles that they could not foresee even as recently as two years ago.
By spring 1315 several rival pretenders to the Imperial throne sprang up in Germany, neither of them being strong nor powerful enough to obtain widespread acknowledgement without the support of most powerful houses of the Empire, or the Pope; even the latter’s death did nothing to rectify the abysmal situation, as the years of 1315 through 1336 saw succession of short-lived Popes that were consequently elected more so to prove convenient puppets for the cardinals and, unthinkable only few years ago, small-time Italian rulers, than to truly govern the Christian Church and serve as the Vicar of God. Albert’s death in 1316, still in captivity, did nothing to help the cause of reunification either.
In 1317, knowing his frontiers rather secure, Basil III embarked upon the last and the most memorable of his campaigns, the one to subdue rebellious Bulgars and Vlachs. Already sixty years old at the time and not content with the fame of being the greatest ruler since Alexius Comnenus two centuries ago, he became obsessed with following in the footsteps of the one he was named after, the most terrifying ruler Byzantium had in centuries, and also one of the most admired – the man known as Bulgaroktonos, the Bulgar-Slayer. Unlike his namesake, however, Basil III did not take his time in subduing Bulgaria; instead, he swept through it in a lightning-fast campaign that utilized not only the undoubted skills of his Turcoman mobile cavalry along with heavily armed Greek klibanophorii, but also the new terrifying weapon that would soon become commonplace in most European armies, the cannon! While the cannons of the time were far from reliable, and about as accurate as could have been expected, the psychological effect these monstrosities had on hapless defenders of walled cities, or on charging infantry in the field was enormous, especially if the men on the receiving side of this primitive artillery had never experienced anything like it before. By 1321, Bulgaria was at large controlled by the Byzantines, although sporadic pockets of resistance were to trouble the Byzantine governors for the next three decades.
It was thus fitting that when Basil III died in 1321, he was deeply mourned, and was later canonized by the Greek Orthodox Church for his tireless efforts in converting the Turks of Anatolian interior to Christianity. His successor, Alexius VII inherited a much stronger Empire than any of his predecessors in more than a century; however, unlike Basil, his son was content to consolidate his power within the existing borders rather than push for their extension. In the long term, he proved to be right, as it seemed that during the time known as Interregnum in the West, the Eastern Empire was the only beacon of stability in an increasingly chaotic and desperate world.
At this time, the magnifying glass of history once again shifts among the years, continents, and the images of actors in the grand play of time, this time centering its view on the British Isles, and the kingdom of France just across the Channel from it. For many years French aspirations in England were anything but secret; already the French held much of Southern England, and were prevented from moving north only by the need to keep a buffer state between themselves and increasingly powerful Scotland.
While the Scottish clans in the highlands remained highly unpredictable and sometimes dangerous foes, the organization of the kingdom was always tenuous at best, preventing its expansion to the south. Now, however, the lowland feudal lords of Scotland managed to enforce their control over their highland brethren by incessant manipulating of warring clans against each other, and by judicious promises of rich lands of England and plunder that lay therein. Louis XII, the king of France, was alarmed.
In 1319 he was faced with the choice of either to allow the Scots to effectively take over the rump Kingdom of England, and to become a major threat to the French presence in the British Isles, or to attempt to enforce an age-old claim that the Kings of England were nothing but French vassals in the eyes of the law, and as such should openly submit to their rightful sovereign, risking provoking Scotland and dragging his country into the war where he may not be able to project his full power effectively but for the risk of leaving his own borders unguarded. The agonizing decision had to be made, and at last Louis chose intervention, knowing well that not only he could not afford aggressive expansionistic Scotland on his doorstep, but that should the kingdom of England fall into their hands, he would be left with nothing but a relatively worthless claim that he would have to fight for should he decide to enforce it. What followed was a four-way quagmire that would leave the countries exhausted, thousands of the continent’s best fighters dead or crippled, and four generations of European history marred by what came to be known as the Hundred Years War.
In truth, looking in hindsight, the Hundred Year War did not truly last a hundred years, and was hardly a singular conflict that usually merits the description. Rather, it was a series of conflicts that flared up and died down for years at the time, interrupted occasionally by frequent armistices, sometimes lasting years at the time; the flow of battle grew and ebbed through the years, favoring one side or the other, winning battles but never gaining decisive advantages that those battles were fought for. In 1319, however, none knew that, both the Scots and the French expecting a relatively quick conflict over who would rule over England.
As 1320s drew on, a single figure emerged in Germany that commanded both deference and respect even from his sworn enemies, and that was the source of much hope for those who were eager to see the Empire united and whole. His name was Albert von Lichtenstein, and through dozens of battles and exhaustive campaigns he was finally able to get the troublesome German barons to give him grudging recognition as the King of Germany in 1324, the direct precursor to the Imperial title itself. Known henceforth to our story as Albert II, his reign marked a brief watershed in the troubled history of the latter-day Western Empire, occasioning the time when swords and war-lances were sheathed for a time being, and a semblance of normality returned to Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy.
Albert II was the first to set another precedent that would prove to be increasingly influential in the later years of the Empire. Feigning illness to mask his true desire to stay in Germany and watch over the barons, he was the first Emperor to claim the title and be widely recognized as such not to have been crowned by the Pope. A stronger Pope would have been outraged and would have demanded the Emperor’s submission; Celestine V, the Pope at the time, was nothing of a kind, being somewhat senile and known to be merely a mouthpiece for a group of powerful cardinals and Italian nobles. In the following years, more and more Emperors would follow his example until Maximillian II’s declaration that Papal blessing was no longer necessary for an Emperor to ascend to the throne, two centuries afterwards. But more on that later.
The situation Albert II inherited from his predecessors, none of whom were later officially recognized as the Emperors in their own right, was quite dismal. Not only the integrity of his title has been severely damaged, Imperial treasury empty, and lands of Germany ravaged by constant warfare, but it became easily apparent to him that the title of the Emperor was nearly meaningless, his own estates not being able to support large-scale projection of power required to enforce and maintain his authority and prestige. And then, there were the Habsburgs.
Despite the setbacks suffered by the House of Habsburg, not in the least being capture and death of luckless Albert I, they still controlled lands greater than those of any other noble house in the Empire. Even if their hold on Sicily has always been tenuous, the Habsburgs ruled in Swabia, Austria, and spread their tentacled grip on many smaller duchies, being rumored to exercise undue influence in Hungary due to family links with its now-Angevin kings. The struggle between the Emperor and the most influential and best entrenched house of his Empire was therefore to become the primary leitmotif for Albert II’s reign.
Between 1324 and 1330, Albert attempted to enact series of reforms that centralized Imperial power only to meet determined resistance; clearly, he thought, time of the great Emperors of the past has passed, and new realities have to be adopted if his Empire were to survive. Perhaps alone amongst his contemporaries and rivals, he sought not only to give himself and his house additional prestige by laying claim to the Imperial title, but he still saw the Empire as one indivisible entity, the eternal Pax Romana that passed on through the ages from Augustus to Constantine, from Trajan to Charlemagne, from Marcus Aurelius to Barbarossa, and that would not be divided again.
As early as 1325 Albert issued stern warnings to the “powerful” within the Empire, acting quickly to bring down some of the smaller lords who begun to question his rule. These actions brought him the nickname of “The Wolf”, after the quick and resolute way in which he went after the barons, and the ruthlessness exhibited by him. Emboldened by his early success, Albert decided it was the time to go after his biggest opponents, the Habsburg family, whose submission, to him, meant the restoration of the true Imperial rule, much like that of the Hohenstaufens.
In 1329, Albert proposed an idea of a Reichstag, the assembly of princes of the Empire to assist him in the governance of the lands within its borders; his aim was likely to provide for a counterpoint to the Habsburgs’ growing power, and to attempt to create a sense of unity among the barons, most of whom thought of their own possessions first, and of the Empire distant second. Needless to say, his proposal created a furor in Germany while being met with indifference in Italy, where Imperial power existed only on paper; Imperial interference was something few of the princes wanted to tolerate, and in such an atmosphere of discontent the Habsburgs were able to play their political hand remarkably well.
When in 1332 Albert II sent an offer of alliance to his Eastern counterpart Alexius VII, tensions were high between him and his Habsburg opponents. Not only Alexius’ father was the captor and, some suspected, the murderer of the Habsburg Emperor Albert I, but Byzantine ambitions in Southern Italy and Sicily were very obvious to many in Germany; an alliance between the two Emperors could mean potential loss of Habsburg estates in Sicily and Apulia, and a threat to the entire house. The informal leader of the House of Habsburg, Maximillian, knew this had to be prevented at any cost.
In Constantinople, too, the matters were far from certain. Some factions at the court favored rapproachment with the West, hoping to regain lost Italian provinces; at the same time, the Westerners were to be distrusted, spoke their opponents, and treated as ruthless and treacherous enemies. While the Emperor Alexius emotionally sided with the latter faction, the chance to regain foothold in Italy after two and a half centuries, discounting brief spell of Manuel I’s misadventures there was too hard to resist; it was the kind of temptation that makes men lose their minds, but also the kind out of which great empires are born.
Therefore, the price of Byzantine alliance was high; not only Albert had to cringingly apologize for the failed Sixth Crusade, but he had to recognize Byzantine claims to Apulia and Sicily. In return, the Byzantines undertook to provide financial and even military support for the Western Emperor, and, as one of the secret provisions of the agreement stated, provide a safe haven for Albert personally should the “enemies within” succeed in their attempt to dethrone him.
To Maximillian of Habsburg, this mean only one thing – war. In 1334, when the alliance between the East and the West was solemnized, the Habsburg army set out against the forces of Albert, long before any help from the East could arrive. To Alexius VII, this was only for the best; with the Habsburgs distracted, Sicily was a fair game. After the Habsburg King of Sicily refused to acknowledge the Eastern Emperor’s supremacy, it gave Alexius a perfect casus belli to invade the island, and to restore it to the seat of Constantinople.
At the first news of the Byzantine fleet sailing toward Sicily, the island was at arms; even heretical, the Byzantines were far preferable to the Habsburg rule, long unpopular and loathed among the island’s inhabitants. The King and his court had to flee for the relative safety of Apulia as soon as the first Byzantine troops made their landing on the island. In 1335, the Byzantines took possession of an island once again, making it a theme.
Further north, the Emperor Albert II faced a number of setbacks. While a fraction of the German barons had little love for the Habsburgs, suspecting them of desiring their lands and properties, the majority by far preferred the status quo, and thus either stayed out of the conflict, or occasionally openly allied themselves with the Habsburgs. Thus he found himself outnumbered and surrounded by enemies on all sides, even as the promised Byzantine help failed to materialize so far.
Finally, by 1336 Albert has had enough, and, cringing teeth, offered Maximillian of Habsburg to enter negotiations. While it might be surprising that Maximillian accepted the offer given his clear advantage in wealth, manpower, and resources, in hindsight his motives are not hard to understand. A weak Emperor not of Habsburg blood, but heavily dependent on the most powerful noble house of the Empire was greatly preferable to either disputed succession, or to drawing too much attention on the Habsburgs’ growing power. For all energy that lesser princes expended attempting to gain the Imperial title, the advantage they gained was surprisingly small, while most holders of the title were more than likely to earn the enmity of the barons. More so, Byzantine successes in Sicily were disturbing, and threatening whatever was left of the Habsburg Italy – in itself a much more valuable possession than the empty promises of a title.
Therefore the terms Maximillian proposed were, at least on the surface, very magnanimous. Both sides, he suggested, should return to status quo, as long as Albert was prepared to confirm a number of privileges for the House of Habsburg that, accordingly to the ancient-looking scrolls brandished by the Habsburg leaders, went back to the time of Nero. The fact that the scrolls were almost certainly a complete forgery, obvious even at the time of their supposed “discovery” by a loyal monk was almost irrelevant due to the power enjoyed by the Habsburgs already, and the lesser barons’ desire to stay on their good side lest they and their lands suffer the wrath of the ascendant house. Finally, Albert was to lend assistance in Habsburg campaign to retake Sicily and stop Byzantine incursions into Apulia, in effect forcing the hapless Emperor to renege on his earlier alliance.
As the Byzantines and the Germans prepared for the showdown that would determine the fate of Sicily, a new and powerful actor entered the scene. For several decades the office of the Papacy was occupied by a number of characters of little importance and even lesser significance; in 1336 this was about to change. The man history came to know as Adrian VI came of humble origins, being fifth son of a Swedish fisherman that through extreme intelligence and not a small amount of luck advanced rapidly through the Church hierarchy, becoming a cardinal in 1331, and finally elected Pope five years later. The first Swede ever to occupy the Holy See, Adrian set at once to restore the fortunes of his church, and to return it to the prominence not only in the spiritual, but also in the temporal world.
In 1337, Adrian issued a prohibition towards both German and Byzantine Emperors to continue conflict amongst them, and to seek Papal mediation between them. The time for his request could hardly have been better. The lapse of Imperial authority in Italy since the death of Henry VII resulted in much stronger ties between Italian city-states and various feudal lords and the Papacy, which many of them attempted to dominate or influence while the Holy Roman Empire was more concerned with its own affairs. As a result, very few Italian leaders were ready to support the Emperor at the potential price of their independence; instead, the Supreme Pontiff seemed like a lesser evil, especially if he were to keep both Eastern and Western Empires away from their homes. With the support of Italian rulers, Adrian knew that his influence was far too significant for either side to ignore; in fact if either Empire wanted to rule in Italy in more than a name, his cooperation would have been essential.
The fact that the Byzantines were heretics and schismatics, not to mention way too tolerant towards the Muslims (at least for the standards of the time) ever since the days of Basil III did not discourage Adrian from attempting to negotiate. True, for the Eastern Emperor to accept Papal order would have been unthinkable, especially given the general disdain in which the Byzantines held the Papacy; however, the Pope as a secular ruler offering mediation was a different thing, at least in the eyes of Alexius VII. That it held a wholly different meaning for Adrian VI did not matter; neither the Pope nor the Western Emperor had any ability to enforce their… understanding of the context in which negotiations would have been held.
The Habsburgs, on the other hand, found themselves in a quandary. As professed staunch Catholic, Maximillian could not simply ignore Papal order or force Albert to do so; at the same time it was clear to him that Adrian had his own interests in mind first and foremost. There had to be a way, he thought, to reach accommodation without having to fight for it, while regaining Habsburg territories or at least ensuring that they remain informally under the house’s control. Therefore, when Albert (or, rather, Maximillian, who by now was practically the power behind the throne, and who held informal allegiance of the German princes) accepted an offer of mediation and sent his ambassadors to Rome, there were several reservations that he held.
From the beginning the negotiations proved to be no easy task. The Germans, the Byzantines, and the Pope each had conflicting interests in mind; however, as long as no independent accommodation was reached between the Byzantines and the Germans, Adrian felt secure enough to press both sides to reach an agreement beneficial to the Catholic Church the most. In no time his legates began dropping subtle and not so subtle hints that the disputed Sicilian territory should be placed under the safekeeping of the Vicar of Christ, whose impartial and benevolent hand would keep an island safe, prosperous, and neutral.
Needless to say, this suggestion did little to appease either side; the Byzantines in particular were infuriated. Why should we, they asked themselves, give up the spoils of our righteous conquest to the Bishop of Rome, whose predecessors had oppressed the True Faith for centuries, and who, given half a chance, would attempt to usurp it for his own devious purposes? The Germans did not like the offer much either; whatever remained of Albert’s original purpose would not see the Imperial territory given up, although if the Papal State would nominally remain the part of the Empire, Albert supposed, it would weaken the Habsburgs enough so that if not him, then his successors (as long as they were not the accursed Habsburgs, he must have remarked to himself) would have easier time dealing with them than he did… this could have been the exact antidote to Maximillian’s looming presence and enormous ambition.
Maximillian, of course, did not see it this way. Placing Sicily under the Habsburg control once again was his aim at the negotiations – besides, he suspected Albert would attempt to turn the tables on him once again. Only one solution presented itself now; the final elimination of Albert, and the installation of the new Emperor supremely loyal to the Habsburg cause. That it would mean stalling negotiations until a new Emperor could be elected would only play into Maximillian’s hands as he would attempt to sway Italian rulers his way, leaving the Pope precious little to bring to the bargain table, and expelling the Byzantines by force, if needed.
When in fall 1338 Albert II was found dead in his room, rumors were abound that it was not a stroke that killed him, as the official announcement proclaimed, but that he was instead strangled by an assassin sent by the Habsburgs. Despite that, few mourned the late Emperor; the barons did not trust him for the fear of imposing centralized control once again, and later for being nothing but a Habsburg puppet; the people cared little, for the Emperor was nothing but a fancy title for most of them in that day and age. Using Albert’s “unfortunate passing” as a pretense to withdraw from negotiations, Maximillian Habsburg set upon attempting to delay the election of the new Emperor for as long as possible, all the while entering into secret negotiations with various Italian rulers who by now began to suspect the Pope of imperial designs of his own.
By 1339 the Byzantines, frustrated at the negotiations being stalled, issued an ultimatum that the Western Empire surrender Apulia as well as Sicily lest they take matters into their own hands. This diplomatic blunder, however, had effects directly opposite to those Alexius VII thought it would generate. Knowing that without the German presence to counterbalance the Byzantines, the schismatics would be quite likely to make good on their threat, Adrian swallowed his pride and set his ambitions aside, at least for a time being, and made an unprecedented proposal to Maximillian Habsburg to recognize him as a lawful Western Emperor in return for an alliance.
While the webs of deceit and deviousness got more and more tangled with each passing day in Rome, seeds of another great power were being sown on the Russian steppes. The city-state of Tver was no longer a city-state after openly resisting the Mongol overlords of Russia, and winning their first victory against the major Mongol army in 1337, even as Novgorod was rapidly losing positions on their Eastern frontier against the Muscovites. The events of that year became the talk of entire Eastern Europe even paling the accomplishment of Teutonic knightly order finally bringing upon the conversion of Lithuania to the Christian faith. Even Alexius VII in faraway Constantinople sent presents to the court of Tver’s prince Vasiliy II as a recognition of the principality’s growing power.
However, even this early a dark cloud appeared on the horizon, apparent to many in the great cities of the Rus – the shadow of an oncoming struggle. It mattered little that the Mongols still overcast the Russian lands; in their hearts, the rulers of Russia knew that the time of Batu’s descendants was coming to an end, if not in their lifetime, then in the lifetime of their children or grandchildren. The question was not of who would expel the Mongols; instead, it was of who would rule the Russian lands afterwards. Already Moscow, still tenuously allied to the Golden Horde begun making claims against Novgorod and smaller principalities that sprung up wherever the Horde was in retreat; the Poles made major gains in the south, taking Kiev itself (although it must be said that Kiev after the Mongol invasion was but a shadow of its former self, reduced almost to a size of a largish village) in 1340. The question of who would rule Russia would still take a century to resolve.
In a meanwhile, Maximillian I of Habsburg was invested with the crown and the scepter by the Papal legate, being the first Emperor in centuries to have obtained the Imperial dignity without first being the King of Germany or the King of the Romans, both being the titles usually given to the Emperor-elect before his coronation by the Pope. In light of the potential Byzantine invasion, Maximillian decided that the risks of being an Emperor were warranted by the danger presented by them; moreover, he alone had the power to make the Pope submit to his will should he decide to do so through his diplomatic prowess and the threat of his military power.
As the Byzantines amassed large armies in Sicily in preparations for the invasion of Apulia, a crisis erupted in Constantinople, forcing the Empire to be turned into turmoil. The cause of this was such: the Emperor Alexius VII had four sons, John, Michael, Alexius, and Constantine. Of these four, the eldest, John, was the clearly recognized heir to the Empire; however, as of late Alexius VII started having doubts about his son’s ability to succeed. Not only John became the talk of Constantinople due to his frequent drunken debauchery, but his gambling habits already cost his father a fortune; something had to be done quickly. In 1341, in the midst of preparations for the resumption of hostilities against the Western Empire, Alexius VII suddenly and unexpectedly died, not long after letting his doubts be publicly known, marking the beginnings of what would be known as the Byzantine Civil War.
Over the course of the next nine years, the four brothers, each claiming the throne for himself fought against each other. While John III held Constantinople, Michael and Alexius removed themselves to Asia Minor, where the powerful dynatoi provided them with money and troops. The youngest, Constantine, rejected their offers to join in with them, and went instead to the Anatolian interior, where he assembled an army from various Turkic tribes and Trapezuntine Greeks.
While the story of the Byzantine Civil War could take a whole book in and out of itself, we shall be rather brief here for the relative interregnum in Byzantine influence in the West. Sicily, left to its own devices after John III summoned its garrison to Greece to guard against attacks by Michael and Alexius, quickly fell to concerned Habsburg assault in 1342, resulting in installment of Otto von Habsburg, Maximillian’s nephew as the King of Sicily to extreme dismay of the island’s citizenry and at least some displeasure from the Pope.
In a meanwhile, feud between Alexius and Michael left Alexius imprisoned, blinded, and forcibly tonsured in Nicaea in 1343; Michael proclaimed that Alexius was plotting with John to overthrow “the rightful basileus”. In 1344 Michael’s troops won a smashing victory against John III’s army in Macedonia, however, he was unable to follow up on his triumph due to Constantine threatening Nicaea itself.
While in the West a relative status quo was to be maintained for most of the decade, in the East Bulgarian rebellion almost cost John III his crown by 1346, being suppressed after a desperate battle of Varna where small contingent commanded by John’s general Andronicus Vataces overcame much larger, but poorly trained and undisciplined rebel army. The turning point of the Byzantine Civil War, however, was not to come until 1348, when John, jealous of Vataces’ increasing popularity due to a number of victorious battles against the Bulgars and Michael’s forces attempted to have his top general assassinated. The plan backfired; when Vataces found out about the plot, he marched on the Blachernae Palace with his loyal troops, and declared John III deposed. To Vataces’ credit, John suffered no blinding nor other mutilation; however, from there on he was to be kept under strict house arrest in one of the innumerable monasteries of Thrace.
This left the question of what should be done now. Although Vataces was popular with the army, he was not of aristocratic stock, and, as it was said, held no imperial ambitions of his own. Therefore, he resolved to invite one of the remaining brothers to rule in John’s stead. The dilemma was difficult.
Michael was the darling of the powerful aristocracy of Asia Minor, and thus would enjoy their support in governing the Empire – but, on the other hand, he would also be likely to give the reins of government to the land-holding aristocracy, in particular the powerful ancient Ducas clan that owned many estates in Anatolia. A low-born himself, Vataces distrusted the aristocracy, believing them to serve their own ends and caring not for the people of his stock, nor for the Empire.
Constantine, on the other hand, not only enjoyed immense popularity with the people of the interior, but was also not implicated in neither fratricide nor patricide; while he was indeed the youngest of Alexius VII’s sons, he also seemed to be most independently-minded and able of the three that still lived. While Vataces’ logic suggested that Michael’s transition to the Empire might be smoother, his own instincts tended to favor Constantine.
As he struggled with decision, news came to the capital that shocked it to the core. In winter 1348, under the cover of darkness Constantine’s troops entered Nicaea through a hidden passage under the walls, made known by a fugitive from Michael’s government. Michael himself was captured, tried for the mutilation of Alexius, and summarily sent to suffer the same fate as his victim. Vataces, as the de facto ruler of the capital, hesitated no longer.
In the first days of 1348 thirty one year old Constantine XI Ergutrulos entered the capital, from which he intended to leave a lasting mark upon the history of Europe.
INTERLUDE ONE – “PROMISED LAND”
May 7th, 1351 AD
Please accept my most profuse apologies for taking so long to write. The literate men are in short supply here in the Baltic wastes, and I had to give much of my spoils to the glory of God’s church to obtain the services of brother Joseph for composing this message to you. I do confess the absolute ignorance of the written form of language, yet my business is war, slaughter, and conquest, all in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and his own chosen Holy Empire; the measly yet precious gift of writing one’s own letters is beyond this old soldier’s comprehension.
We have been on march for the past two weeks, all across the land of the barbarians who even now brandish the amulets of devils they worship. Father Thomas tells us that they had seen the light of Christ and ascended to his promise of gentle and sweet redemption, yet the old, savage ways are still holding sway over the souls of these people; were it not for the Emperor’s orders, I would have been the first one to put the fear of one true God into every single one of them.
It is one small village after another, hidden in the patches of sinister-looking woods that seemingly go on forever; it is rather cold for May, and provisions are frequently hard to find. Three days ago we came upon yet another one of these damned villages, grey in the endless rain, straw roofs of its primitive huts like islands in the dark cloud of pouring waters. The village elder refused us the food and hospitality, probably thinking that our vanguard was just a small troop of raiders; regardless, for our swords were eager to drink the blood of the heathens who would not even erect a simple church, a homage to God in their wooded hideout; the barbarians of the land they call Lithuania, still dressed in the furs of the beasts salvaged from the wild forests.
I ran the old man through with my blade, cringing at the thought of his unworthy blood staining our fine German steel. He fell without much sound, and I felt… no, not guilt, but regret that he did not suffer as much as his fellow peasants for refusing food and shelter to the righteous soldiers of Christ. For the cross I bear on my arms and my shield is the cross of true faith that we are going to bring to the heretics of Novgorod for one last time, at the tip of the sword if we must; the cross is the promise of lands and glory for our younger sons, whom the cruel law would leave with little to live on and only their strong arms and pure hearts to make their way in this world.
Time and time again my thoughts go to you and our sons, for whose inheritance I am prowling this savage land as much as in the name of glory of the Almighty. Tell the young Ulrich that I will send him something of interest with the next letter. I wonder if Heinrich is still spending much time at the training field now that I am on campaign; what his tutors were telling me before I left for the East was disturbing, for it is the duty of the nobleman to fight in wars against the enemies of the Empire and God, not to stick his nose into the books like a monk or, worse yet, a Jew. Tell his Franciscan tutors to praise the importance of physical courage, and valor in battle over the doubtful virtue of a librarian, for one day he will be riding in my place with the mighty army, taking his place in an assault on the heathens and heretics.
We shall cross into the lands of Novgorod in three days’ time, and the next letter I send will follow soon. Then, we shall put heretics to flight, and raise the banner of the Roman Empire and Emperor Maximillian over the ramparts of their city just as brother Joseph and his fellow servants of the Lord raise the flag of the true Christian faith over its inhabitants’ souls. Until then, pray for the glory and valor of our arms in the coming battle, for our victory is truly a great work for the Lord, and for the Empire.
We shall prevail, for God is with us!
Your loving husband,
Conrad, Graf von Gottingen
May 28th, 1351
The past three weeks had been insane with preparations for march on Novgorod, and it is only in these twilight hours that brother Joseph could take down my thoughts and put them to paper in preparation for the couriers who will leave home to Germany. Oh, how I envy those lucky men that get to see our homeland, feel the tender embraces of their wives and children, and sleep in a warm bed, not in the haystack that most of us here are forced to substitute for real shelter.
It still rains all the time, and the sky is grey only with occasional flashes of lightning cutting through. At least we are no longer in this damnable forest, and no longer have to worry about the heathen scum hiding in the underbrush with their primitive bows and arrows. Only two days ago, just as we began to see the clearing far ahead the barbarians ambushed a group of scouts, leaving a few of them dead. They are nothing more than an annoyance to us, my dear, but an annoyance nevertheless. Once the proud and insolent Novgorodians are subdued, I will personally lead a troop into these forests and burn every single one of these bastards on the stake in the name of the Lord for all the hassle they caused us.
In two days’ time we shall send out the messengers ordering the heretics to lay down their arms and accept the judgement of their betters; should they refuse our most reasonable and just offer, our steel will write their epitaphs upon the chains of slavery that their women and children will inherit for the defiance of their fathers. Brother Thomas says that such thoughts are sinful, however, to hell with that, I say! Are we not the soldiers of Christ doing his work?
Conrad Graf von Gottingen
June 16th, 1351
A week ago we had received the response from Novgorod, and just as I had thought, our messenger was lucky to escape with his head still attached. No matter though, they shall not know what hit them when the pride and glory of the Imperial army, when our broadswords run them through and separate their limbs from their bodies, they shall repent their sins.
Forgive me for such bloodlust in my thoughts and words, but the thought of battle is the only thing that can dull the pain of unfulfilled craving to be with you at home in Gottingen, among our people and in the land where my father’s and grandfather’s bones are resting in their sacred sleep. Every moment that passes brings the return home so much closer, and the sweet taste of impending victory in the East is only a sign of what is to come to all who would wish us ill.
We expect to engage the heretic army in a month’s time; should I fall in the fray ensuring the victory of our holy Crusade, know that I would fall with your name, and names of our children on my lips alongside the name of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Pray for our arms’ victory in the oncoming war!
In the name of the Lord,
Conrad Graf von Gottingen
April 22nd, 1354
This is the first letter that I write to you with my own hand, a necessity as well as a blessing of the circumstance that brought me to this godforsaken land, and the first time I was allowed to subject parchment to the tender mercies of Kniaz Mikhail’s couriers. Please forgive me for such a long time before managing to send a word to you and our sons; despite the unfortunate circumstances of our parting, the joy of our reunion will bring balance to our home again, and this message is a mere forerunner of my impending arrival back to the sweet, sweet lands we call home.
The last you have heard from me was almost three years ago, just as we were riding on to meet the army of Novgorod in battle to decide once and for all who shall lord over this land, and whose divine inspiration we were to bring to its people – the word of our holy father the Pope, or the misguided schismatic teachings of the heretic Greek Patriarch. We rode on with certain knowledge of victory and of promised heavenly reward should we fall in the fray, the promise of lands for our sons and rich dowries for our daughters, the promise of absolution, never knowing what awaited us ahead.
The battle was over, and what a slaughter it was! We fed the fields of Novgorod with our blood, and that of our enemies, giving the crows, ravens, vultures, and wolves a saga to remember for years to come, slaying their knights and footmen by score only to see more take their place in the ranks of the heretic horde. It was at dusk that we charged into the lines of Novgorod’s infantry, and until the very dusk we fought even as our weapons grew dull and useless, grabbing swords and war axes out of the hands of our still living and breathing enemies, or even worse, fallen comrades; struggling with our horses as their strength gave out and we dismounted, fighting on foot with every weapon conceivable under the sun; and when the weapons gave out and there were none to harvest from the bodies of the fallen we fought with our arms, legs, and teeth, hammering out the path for our escape from the encirclement, for despite all of our bravery and skill of our finest warriors, the day was lost, with nary a third of our number escaping with our lives from the blood-soaked fields.
Yes, our brothers in arms fell to the swords, spears, and arrows of the Novgorodians as our valiant knights fought in vain with the reins of our horses, frightened by the infernal noises of the Russian cannon the likes of which I had never seen; for these horrid weapons were mounted on the wagons our scouts mistook for supply train, or, better yet, for the decadent riches the merchant princes of Novgorod are rumored to haul with them on campaign to provide for their luxurious and sinful lifestyle.
To be truthful, the damage their cannons have done was slight; yet our horses, the lifeblood of any campaign, were frightened to the point of throwing off their riders; only through enormous exertions of strength was I able to keep Blackheart, my war mount under control. And before the end of the day we learned that it was not the wanton luxury and decadent pleasures the Russians had thrived on in the midst of war, but the loud songs of steel and gunpowder singing hymnals to their victory.
I fought for hours that seemed like an eternity, surrounding myself and my few companions with mounds of dead flesh of our assailants, yet to no avail, locking my back to two of foot soldiers of my regiment, Swabian peasants by the looks of them, but brave and valiant in battle as any gallant knight or noble. Finally, even these two guardian angels gave way and fell; only through a blind stroke of fortune the Russian’s mace did not crack my skull open, merely knocking consciousness out of me.
When I woke up the next day I was in a cage, surrounded by the men that were once my comrades and fellow crusaders, all bruised, pleading for help and broken in body and spirit. Our guards, large bearded Russians say nary a word to us; even if they could understand the German tongue, they kept silent and menacing like the gargoyles that I had once seen at the great cathedral in Paris. Rarely we were able to catch a glimpse of Novgorodian knights, speeding by and exchanging stories of their victory with smiles on their faces and drinking from the large jugs that were probably filled with the finest wine taken from our camp. As for us, we were barely alive in the sun that only decided to come down to laugh at our defeat, mocking us with its hordes of flies and other flying vermin, putrid stench of death rising from the parts of the cage where some of my unfortunate compatriots passed on to their heavenly reward.
In a week’s time we arrived in the city of Novgorod itself hidden behind massive walls, only then realizing the futility of our endeavor. For the city seemed almost as grand and majestic as fabled Constantinople, and certainly more grandiose in its splendor than most great cities of Europe I had ever witnessed; its people were a legion standing on the street corners, cheering on their victorious army as it marched through the wide cobbled streets, displaying the wealth and power of their kind for all the world to see. They threw dirt, rotten food, and all kinds of garbage at us as if we were some common criminals; there were some of us that cursed back at these cowardly devils, safely separated from us by the steel of the cage and iron of our manacles. Then, I saw our surviving footmen levy march in the midst of Russian army, and my heart sank, for there was not even the hateful protection of the cage to shelter them from the torrents of abuse hurled at them by Novgorodians young and old, men and women as they limped through the streets of the city.
Eventually our sorrowful and shameful journey came to an end, made known not as much by anything other than a relative lull in the hail of waste thrown at us. Truly, we had not seemed much like an army then, more so like a ragtag coterie of bandits from the mountains near Tirol; yet this was not the end to our disgrace and misery. Still chained and bound, we were paraded in front of richly dressed men that I took to be their “Veche”, the ruling council – merchants all to the last. The thought of merchants ordering the princes around and passing judgement on their superiors still fills me with spite and rage, and I spit at the ground at the sight of this collection of moneylenders and greedy maggots masquerading as men of privilege and honor.
At last, our solemn procession came to the stop, and a group of heavily armored men with some insignia on their breastplates appeared, apparently a bodyguard for whoever passes for prince in this northern Babylon. I could barely hold my contempt for a man who would allow the traders to rule in his name, thinking him to be nothing but an unthinking brute, a savage barbarian fit only to be a lapdog of his greedy masters jumping at their word to do their bidding.
The sight of Novgorodian prince himself did little to dispel my loathing of him and his kind, not only an abomination in name, but a heretic to the boot, for the scarred, heavily bearded face of the man told stories of unmentionable excesses on the field of battle, and of unspeakable cruelty befitting one living in the unforgiving and bestial land such as this. It was the face that seemed to inspire fear and wanton terror, not the face of a prince and a nobleman.
He walked towards us captives, sizing us down with the stare that could barely betray the bloodlust behind his thoughts, then exclaimed something loudly in that barbaric tongue of his. To my horror, two of his guards dragged one of my companions from our sorrowful procession; it was with shock that I recognized duke Henry, the second-in-command in our ill-fated expedition. The barbarian said something again in a loud voice to the apparent cheering of the crowd; then, he grabbed an enormous two-handed sword from one of his guards, who managed to step backwards as if in protest of the inhumanity of his lord’s intentions. With one swing he cut duke’s head off his shoulders, kicking it and letting it roll down the street to be abused by the citizenry of this foul city.
The barbarian prince walked closer, no doubt picking the next victim to satisfy his craving for Catholic blood. It was then that I determined that should I fall by the Russian blade, it will be through no idle acceptance of my fate, but in the last act of war that I could carry in the name of everything true and holy, an act of vengeance for my fallen battle brothers, and a sign that the Divine Providence, and more so the Reckoning finds sinners and heretics even in the moment of their apparent triumph.
As the prince’s figure drew closer, his eyes centered on me; one word, I thought, and my life will be thrown away in vain just like that of my commander before me. With one inhumane bellow of rage, I defied my shackles and the surprised guards, hurling myself at the Russian and hoping that I could break his neck before his minions finish the job he undoubtedly had in his twisted black mind. Alas, days of exertions of the body and deprivation of food, water, and sleep took their toll; the beast-man, though duly surprised and astonished, had nevertheless managed to meet my unfortunate assault with fists size of large boulders, it seemed, knocking the daylight out of me. The last thing I thought I would see were the hate-filled eyes of the man as he would drive the bastard steel of his through my body, leaving it breathless to join with my fallen comrades in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yet this was not to be; as his minion brutes belatedly proceeded to hold me, the man turned his back to me, facing the crowd. He said something in Russian to the bewildered crowd that seemed surprised by this turn of events, then he turned again to face me.
“If kill me you must,” I spat through blood in my mouth, “then let me die a man, with sword in my hand, or be damned to the deepest darkest hell!”
The man’s face turned into a grin; I had no inkling on whether he understood the word of what I spoke, but in my desperation it mattered little. He said something to one of his lackeys, and the bloody sword used to decapitate my commander only minutes ago was brought into the light again, reflecting red on its stained blade for all to see. I stared at the prince, determined to meet my maker with my eyes wide open, defiant to an end. Yet still I was not prepared for the sounds of clear German speech coming from his heathen throat.
“If you come to our land with a sword,” he said, laying his hands on the handle of the weapon, “then by the sword you shall die.”
The shock of this beastly figure speaking a civilized language stunned my tongue, yet the lack of fear in my eyes must have given him the answer he needed, for he handed the sword back to one of his guardsmen. “You are brave,” he spoke to me with an apparent mixture of loathing and, dare I say, admiration; “yet your courage is misguided.”
“Look around,” he said, waving his hand around towards the column of prisoners. “Are these not the men who thought themselves worthy of a higher purpose? Are these not the men who believed that the Almighty gave them right to lord over their equals and to slay their brothers in Christ for a worldly gain? You, who wear a cross on your chest, how could you ever subscribe to such an ungodly endeavor?”
He went on to chastise me as if he were a bishop preaching to the sinners on a podium of a great cathedral, except that his church was his city, his flock were the very people he swore to protect. The beast-man spoke of brotherly love that the teachings of our Lord and Savior induced us to carry into this world, and how our ideals were perverted by the power hungry men who had claimed to have seen the light of God, yet stayed in the total and absolute darkness. Such was the strength of his conviction that even as I struggled with rage that I felt only moments ago, tears came to my eyes when I realized this man, the barbarian I wrote of before had a demeanor as noble and worthy as any of the great princes of the Empire.
Yes, he said, blood has been shed, and those responsible had paid dearly for the privilege to make war on the lands of Novgorod. As he spoke the words, he looked at the direction of duke Henry’s breathless corpse, now beset with the flies and laying in dirt, and exposed to the crowd’s humiliation.
“This was your leader who thought he could take away our freedoms and make the Lord Great Novgorod submit to a foreign ruler. We offer a hand of peace to those that come in peace, but those whose lust for wealth and lands leads them here will only find death.”
So spoke Mikhail Vasilyevich, Kniaz (which is their word for the prince) of Novgorod. When he was done, I braced myself for the inevitable, yet the sword thrust I waited for never came. Instead, the guards led most of us towards what I assumed to be prison; my fate, as I soon found out, was different. The Kniaz said something to one of his men, pointing at me, and before I had a chance to resist, four giant Russians dragged me towards my unknown destiny.
As it turned out, Mikhail Vasilyevich was intrigued by the German knight who fought on even in spite of utter defeat. Those were his own words, not mere outbursts of sinful pride from this old soldier; for all my life I had known little but war and battle, having fought in innumerable campaigns under the banners of the Empire and coming away with my life from all of them, yet never had there been a praise of my valor like this one. I was placed in one of the innumerable towers rising into the sky above Novgorod, where my battle wounds slowly healed under the tender care of Russian physician whose name I could never pronounce, let along remember.
Still I knew I was prisoner, and kept alive only on the mercy of Mikhail Vasilyevich himself, having little to do but rot in my captivity. The Kniaz visited me several times over the next two months, asking about my travels and campaigns I had fought in, however the only other company I had were the four burly guards that never spoke. It was not until much later that I found out the guards were warrior priests, akin to the knights of our own Livonian order, under the oath of silence until they were given permission to speak again by their abbot. So, I thought, this was the reason the Novgorodians fought with the fury and skill worthy of the most noble knights of Europe, the faith of the city’s inhabitants giving them a second sword and a second shield.
When I asked the Kniaz about this, he smiled, and told me that unlike us in the West, the Novgorodians needed no promised land, no holy pilgrimages, for their promised land was right under their feet; it was their home, and the roots that gave their people such a solid foundation worth fighting and dying for. They desired little of other nations save for their friendship, tolerance, and commerce, he said; they were reluctant warriors, but warriors nevertheless, and any man foolish enough to threaten their sacred homeland learned that quickly enough.
Over the next year I picked up enough Russian to carry on a simple conversation; then, I fell sick. Near death, I called for a priest of my own Catholic faith, knowing that the end was near; brother Joseph, one of my former companions in the crusade was still living in the city, citing it as his calling to bring the true faith to the heretics. It is ironic, I say, that his simple efforts to appeal to the goodness and humanity in the hearts of the Novgorodians after he was let go of the prison did more to convert the select few to the faith of our fathers than the entire crusade; but God does work in mysterious ways.
Miraculously I survived the bout with disease, although to this day I still feel its aftermath in pains that sometimes attack my limbs and joints at times when it rains; then, I pleaded with brother Joseph to teach me to read and write. It is thanks to this most patient of all teachers that I write this letter to you in my own hand rather than having to occupy the holy man’s time that could be used for godly works.
I feel the coming of old age upon me, and the grip of death marching ever near, the one last battle this old soldier will not be able to win; thus I finally persuaded Kniaz Mikhail Vasilyevich to let me see those dearest to me before the shadow of the reaper completely overtakes what is left of my years. He was right; there is no promised land, there are no sacred pilgrimages but one.
I am coming home.
Conrad Graf von Gottingen
In The Shadow Of Death (1350-1400)
In one last breath
You'll feel this damned old soul
You'll see the things I see
For all these years
Of pain and sacrifice
You'll know the pain I know
Of all these things
I offer unto you
Infernal wisdom waits
Like the flames of hate
My sacrifice is made
And every word you hear
Comes from deep within
An angry soul
That twists and turns inside
Pondering this life
Staring through your lies
Awakes the inner rage
Take my knife
Make my sacrifice
You¹re my burnt offering
Spill your blood
Offer me good omen
Make the sacrifice, the hours close at hand
Burn your soul
Offer me good omen
Take your very life, this I command
Iced Earth – “Burnt Offerings”
The fate of Conrad von Gottingen after the writing of the letters kindly submitted by late Graf’s descendants is relatively obscure; despite believing himself close to death at the time his last letter was written, he lived on for twenty more years, dying in his bed in 1374, aged sixty two. The rest of Europe, however, was not as fortunate.
As the German barons grumbled with discontent, Maximillian decided that in order to contain them and to reduce the problem of nobility dangerously increasing in proportion to the overall population, a military expedition had to be organized to take more land from a weaker, preferably Pagan, Muslim, or, for the lack of former, heretical nation, serving the purpose of not only spreading Catholicism throughout Europe, but also distributing large surplus of landless nobles among the new Imperial dominions, and expand the Habsburg power to lessen its dependency on baronial support. In 1351, the expedition set towards the Russian trading state of Novgorod, whose wealth, lands, and relatively remote location virtually guaranteed that Novgorod would face the Imperial army alone, with no overt support from any of its enemies.
Passing through only nominally (but sufficiently so, in the eyes of the Pope) Catholic Lithuania, the German army engaged the Russians with the results described by late Graf von Gottingen; a humiliation for the Empire and its Emperor followed. In 1353 Maximillian made grudging peace with Novgorod’s prince Mikhail IV, paying significant ransom for the German captives as the only means to ensure the barons of his goodwill towards them, and to prevent now all-too-sudden threat of deposition. In truth, Maximillian put his trust into the success, or at the very least an honorable end to the Second Baltic Crusade (the first one being the name generally given to Livonian Order’s gradual conversion of Lithuania to Christianity), not the all-out disaster the Germans encountered. Thus burdened with the heavy weight of loss, Maximillian of Habsburg died in 1355 just as the word of a new menace begun to spread through the Christendom.
The first mention of the Great Black Plague of the XIVth century came in a chronicle from 1354, describing the virulent disease ravaging a Greek trading post on the Sea of Azov. Through Genovese and Byzantine traders, the disease spread both to Italy and Asia Minor by 1355, recorded as being solely responsible for the deaths of half of the population of Thessaloniki, and insurmountable misery elsewhere. Very few cities were spared the ravages of the plague; chief amongst them was Venice, which instituted strict quarantine enforced by its formidable navy and the city’s unique location.
Another city that suffered less than would be expected from a bustling metropolis its size was Constantinople, saved by timely intervention of Constantine XI, whose draconian measures of allowing no ships into its great harbors and closing its gates to all outsiders. The flipside of such a quarantine was the famine that followed, for the city’s formidable food reserves were still not sufficient to feed its half-million strong population. By 1356 many of the city’s citizens were starving, and the Emperor had to put down at least two major attempts to remove him from the throne; many of the city’s poor were thrown outside the walls and left to their own devices in the plague-ravaged countryland just as the churches filled with frightened, hungry masses for the sermons of firebrand preachers with flames of doom in their eyes.
Not surprisingly, Constantine was detested for such harsh measures, and several outlying provinces quickly rose up in revolt under generals proclaimed Emperors by their own troops, chief among them Andronicus Ergutrulos, the Emperor’s uncle previously thought of as harmless and trustworthy and left in command of large force on the Eastern frontier of the Empire. The other contenders for the throne included such prominent leaders of the day as Nicetas Botaneiates, the Strategos of Cappadocia, and Michael Argyros, Drungarios (or High Admiral) of the Byzantine Black Sea fleet; however, none of these enjoyed as high a degree of legitimacy or popular support as Andronicus, who quickly secured important fortresses and begun negotiations with Michael Argyros, promising him the title of Sebastokrator and the hand of one of his daughters in marriage should he throw his lot in with Andronicus instead of attempting to claim the purple for himself.
While the Eastern Empire was torn apart by yet another round of civil strife, the Plague continued to ravage the West. Maximillian’s elected successor, Adolph II lived only for few months after being crowned, succumbing to the plague in late 1356; his successor-to-be (usually counted as Otto V, even if he did not actually reign and only received the crown of Germany, not that of the Western Empire) contracted the disease while on the trip to Rome to receive the Pope’s blessing, and died shortly thereafter. Clearly, the wrath of God was upon the godless Western Emperors – or so thought the Pope Adrian, witness to the ravages of an invisible killer that made no difference between peasant, clergyman, noble, or infidel, killing all in its way.
Although by now well into his late sixties, Adrian lost none of his energy nor determination in claiming that until God’s wrath subsides, no Emperor could be crowned, and the Vicar of Christ should assume temporal as well as the spiritual authority in the Empire. After all, the city of Rome itself had strangely suffered somewhat less from the Plague despite only mild quarantine measures (ironically, in the last several decades researchers pointed out that the true cause for Rome’s relatively low, albeit still formidable death toll was much more prosaic, owing more to the accidental introduction of different species of a rat into the city that drove away so-called “roof rats” - the species frequently living in the roofs of the houses responsible for spreading the disease by the means of fleas living on their fur were now displaced by the species mostly living in the cellars and lower levels of dwellings known as the “Norwegian rat”), meaning that God’s favor was clearly with His church.
The Plague also had some unexpected results. In lower England, decimation of the French garrisons through disease allowed for a sneak English attack on the French-controlled territory, taking Essex and advancing into Kent all the while being barely held back in Devonshire. With French dominion of England seriously challenged, and the Scots adding Wales to their dominions, the struggle for the British Isles became a three-way conflict instead of being previously thought of as the matter of contest between Scotland and France, England entering the fray as a full-scale participant on the battle for dominance on the British Isles.
In Iberia, in a meanwhile, Granada suffered a crushing defeat to the forces of Leon, losing much of its northern frontier; while Castile attempted a land grab of their own, however, the armies of Leon turned on them, reducing Castile to a smallish kingdom in the northwestern corner of the peninsula. The Granadans, still reeling from their defeat, begun major persecution for all non-Muslims in the country, believing them to be potential traitors; as a result, a major exodus of Christians of every denomination begun towards every land that would have them.
The descendants of Cathar refugees that fled Languedoc a century ago, however, found themselves in between a rock and a hard place. Their faith outlawed in all of Christian Spain and in most of Europe, they had little reason to be optimistic – besides, with the Plague rampant, most states shunned accommodating foreign refugees in first place. Desperate, they used all of their available funds to bribe Marinid officials for the ability to acquire several seaworthy ships, which set sails for the Balearic Islands in early 1360, where the Cathar colony set up its virtual independence. In the next century, however, the Balearics would acquire much darker reputation due to the number of pirates operating from the islands with the Cathar leaders turning the blind eye as the pirates provided the islands with their only means of naval protection and with a steady source of income. Indeed, by the end of the XIVth century the words “Cathar” and “pirate” were nearly synonymous in much of the Mediterranean.
In the lands formerly of the Rus, the fragmentation of the Mongol Horde proceeded fast apace. Independent princedoms were declaring themselves within the Mongol lands almost daily, and no sooner could the Khan put down one rebellion than another two flared up elsewhere. A Russian warlord Dimitri Obolenskiy won series of victories against both the regional Mongol forces and the Poles, culminating with his capture of Kiev in 1359, and the crowning of him as the Grand Prince of Kiev, much to the chagrin of the others claiming the title of the Grand Prince in Moscow and Tver; Dimitri claimed his state to be a direct successor of Kievan Rus of old and established sovereignty within the borders enjoyed by Kiev prior to the Mongol conquest. A Mongol prince Giray, shunned and disempowered by the Khan due to his potential claim to the Mongol throne, rebelled and set up a Khanate in Crimea, taking Byzantine settlements there one by one until only Cherson was still in Greek hands.
The Plague seemed to affect the Mongols slightly less than their European neighbors, probably due to some sort of prior immunity they developed along the way of their conquests, but little progress was made by the Khan – instead, political instability resulted in a number of Mongol generals striking out on their own while the Sarai could do little but threaten and watch. In addition to Giray’s Khanate of Crimea, the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Caucasus sprung up, the latter one founded by a general of mixed Mongol and Georgian blood who ended up staging what was essentially a coup in the Kingdom of Georgia but claiming it was a conquest of the kingdom in order to prop up his prestige among the other Khanates.
As Europe stood in fear of the Plague and internal strife, the Habsburgs reaped a harvest of titles and lands in Germany and Austria due to inheritances from the noble lines dying out in the Plague; while the Habsburgs themselves were not immune to the disease, losing a fair number of their own, the extensive marriage network established by the heads of the House over the past seventy years began to bear fruit, resulting in bountiful inheritances that truly established an “Empire within Empire”, as a contemporary remarked upon. By now, nearly the entire southern half of German Holy Roman Empire was in some way or another controlled by a member of House of Habsburg.
Despite Maximillian I’s reign ending in a near-disaster, his successors were able to mitigate the damage done to the house reputation by shifting attention of the German nobles to other matters, namely the plague itself, and the lack of need to expand to other lands in its wake. At this time, the House of Habsburg was headed by one Francis, son of Maximillian, considered a brilliant, albeit ruthless and duplicitous diplomat by contemporaries. The question in front of Francis was that of the status of the house; while with respect to sheer wealth and power the Habsburgs were unrivaled amongst the noble houses of the Empire, they normally did not even carry a kingly title, relegating them nominally to a lower position than a number of European rulers, some of whom were the electors in the Empire. Worse yet, with the Pope refusing to crown the next Emperor until “God’s punishment was through”, even the Imperial prestige earned by several Habsburg Emperors did little to elevate the house’s nominal standing.
Instead of antagonizing the Pope and making him the potential rallying point of any dissenter movements, Francis negotiated a settlement with the Pope that was taught to aspiring diplomats for centuries to come. No, he stated, the House of Habsburg never laid claim to the Empire as its own, instead being content with its ancient special privileges as protectors and servants of Christendom in the Empire’s borders. And despite the failings of those of us, he continued, that are only human, it must be remembered that it was the Habsburg that brought peace and tranquility to the Empire, and it was the Habsburg that defeated the heresies that plagued the souls of its people.
Yet, Francis wrote to the Pope, was it not an unspeakable injustice that the Empire’s most prominent and noble house still had to contend with being below many of its lessers on the feudal ladder as the mere Dukes, whereas some of the lesser German electors brandished titles of Princes and Kings? If the Vicar of Christ were to accept the House of Habsburg as one of the pillars which would support the Empire’s ecclesiastic foundation with its temporal might, would it not be prudent to acknowledge the debt the Empire had to the house for delivering it from the heretical Hohenstaufens, and bringing peace to the lands in the years past?
The subtlety was not lost on the Pope Adrian, who was beginning to feel vulnerable in Italy with the military force definitely no match for the German armies, or, for that matter, for the concerned Byzantine attempt at the peninsula should it ever occur. It was, he concluded, better to deal with the devil he knew well and to obtain his political and military support than it was to be left open for any adventurous prince with the desire to add the Imperial title to his resume. Besides, Francis did not ask for much; a recognition of a title above that of a Duke that would be inherited by his successors was all he wanted. Or was it?
Despite his doubts, in 1361 aging and by now increasingly more senile Adrian reluctantly proclaimed that from now on, the head of House of Habsburg was to carry the title of Caesar, or Kaiser, in part in recognition of their enduring service to the Empire and the Christian faith, in part due to their willingness to be the pillar that supports the Holy See and its faithful flock. The title, Adrian declared, was to be equivalent to that of a King elsewhere, but, as he was careful to point out, did not constitute automatic Emperorship, given with the title of Imperator Augustus that was the Pope’s to give.
To Francis, this mattered little. The fact was that he practically got himself crowned Emperor by skillfully manipulating his opponents, and without even claiming to be one. It is thus true to his designs that the history books do generally count Francis and his successors as Holy Roman Emperors whether or not they were actually crowned as such. With the notable exception of a brief interlude in the XVth century, every Holy Roman Emperor from then on was a member of the House of Habsburg, and was the possessor of the title of a Kaiser.
In a meanwhile, the Eastern Empire was catapulted headlong into the series of events known from thereon as the Second Byzantine Civil War, raging across Anatolia and the Balkans even as the ravages of the Plague subsided. For seven years the fighting was inconclusive, despite Andronicus eliminating all other contenders for the throne and facing off against the reigning Emperor only. Finally, in 1363 the rebel suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the loyalist army led by Constantine XI himself, seemingly deciding the fate of the war.
Although Andronicus managed to escape with a small retinue of loyal bodyguards and his war treasury, it seemed that his days were numbered. Already most territories that previously pledged allegiance to him surrendered to the victorious Imperial army, and garrisons of the rebel-held cities opened their gates to the loyalist troops; the peasantry of Anatolia, previously thought of by Andronicus as the main pillar on which his power stood, watched impassively as the Imperial army marched to the East. Indeed, as soon as the plague subsided, Constantine opened the gates of the capital again, temporarily converting much of the Imperial navy into transports to deliver vital cargo of grain and other food to the city; the very citizens that were starving only months ago praised the wisdom of the Emperor, now that the ravages of the plague became well-known. From the city’s four hundred thousand-strong population, the death toll was minimal despite the many discomforts suffered by its people; in a meanwhile Adrianople (where most of the refugees from the capital went), Nicaea, and Thessaloniki were all devastated, some losing as much as a half of their population to disease. Thus when a wayward scholar nicknamed the Emperor “Draco” after a semi-mythological Athenian ruler, Constantine adopted the moniker with a certain degree of pride, knowing that his harsh, but effective measures saved the capital from certain devastation. Of course, Constantine wisely chose to ignore the fact that the very measures that saved the capital not only almost cost him his throne, but resulted in much misery during the civil war.
Sensing everything lost, Andronicus went to the only source of help he could turn to – the Kingdom of Syria, ruled from Aleppo by a young, yet ambitious prince Khalil. Despite being only nineteen at the time, Khalil made no secret of his desire to see the Muslim world reunited, by force if necessary; dismissed by most of his peers as a dreamer, he nevertheless has proven to be much more formidable than anyone could suspect. Therefore, Andronicus’ arrival at Aleppo was an event as fortuitous as any Khalil could ever hope for.
Promising not only most of his treasury, but also the disputed border provinces to Khalil should he be provided with the troops, in 1364 Andronicus arrived in Aleppo, attempting to garner support against his nephew. The Syrian King’s advisors were enthusiastic; here, they said, was the chance to strike at the Greek Empire while it was still recovering from civil strife, and, should they succeed, bring the proud Byzantines to their knees – something not even the Caliphate at its height could do. Despite their urgings, Khalil had his own reservations in committing to what was essentially a foreign war with little to gain. He had Andronicus ambushed and killed, taking his treasury and sending ambassadors to Constantine with the head of his wayward uncle along with the letter confirming the peace treaty and asking for an alliance with the Emperor.
With his Western frontier thus quiet, and with his finances strengthened considerably by late Andronicus’ treachery, Khalil began campaigns of conquest that were to last for the next thirty years of his reign, culminating with his capture of Cairo in 1389 and the end of the Abbassid reign as most of the Muslim world once ruled by the Abbassids was now under control of Aleppo. His campaigns are better told elsewhere; it suffices to say that to this day Khalil is revered across the Muslim world as one of its greatest leaders, the bringer of unity and the one factor that allowed the Arab states to regain their cultural and technological prominence in the world of the time.
To Constantine XI, still hunting down small groups of bandits that claimed loyalty to Andronicus before his death in Anatolia, death of his uncle and the end of large-scale fighting in the civil war meant that he could finally focus on foreign goals, chief of which was the restoration of his Empire’s power and influence in Europe, which was damaged by civil strife and discord. His first step was to send an embassy West, not to the Pope, to the shock of the many, but to the “Caesar” Francis, revealing Constantine’s obvious understanding of who was the true power in the Western Empire.
By 1366, an agreement between the East and the West was hammered out, resulting in a marriage of Constantine’s daughter Zoe to Francis’ son, another Francis, along with the promise of renewed alliance and cooperation in expelling the Moors from Jerusalem. In truth, both Constantine and Francis knew that the latter goal was simply a convenient pretext for the marriage alliance; the former had just made a profitable trading arrangement with the Abbassids (in whose power Jerusalem still remained until 1373), and the latter had no stomach for massive undertaking such as the Crusade – neither had any intentions of supporting, let alone initiating the new Crusade. The old Pope Adrian would have protested vehemently, but Adrian was dead, having passed on peacefully in Rome; the College of Cardinals was still debating on the successor – thus there were no opponents of the agreement that, many hoped, would heal the rifts between the East and the West.
Although the plague has subsided by 1360, there has been a definite lack of desire to appoint an Emperor both from the Pope and the Habsburgs; the status quo satisfied both sides well. When the new Pope, Innocent VII was elected in 1367, tensions between the two were at a much lower point than any time in the last century; they were to remain as such throughout the rest of Francis I’s reign.
While the East and the West both enjoyed a period of relative domestic and foreign tranquility, the British Isles were torn apart by warfare where the borders and alliances shifted nearly every minute. By 1370 the French were finally able to gain a distinct advantage over the British, leaving only small pieces of territory still in British hands due to an alliance of convenience with the Scots; the French king believed that the sooner the English resistance is quelled, less of a thorn in his side it will be – even if the partition of England agreed between him and his Scottish counterpart was only a temporary measure, it satisfied both antagonists as to be able to focus on each other instead of losing men and resources to guerilla raids by the increasingly desperate English.
The partition, as one could expect, was not to last long; even as the King of England was formally forced to give up the crown and the title, now having to style himself the “Prince of Norfolk” and swearing the oath of fealty to the French, tensions began to grow between the French and the Scots. Finally, in 1378 a dispute over who should have control over a particular county erupted into a full-scale conflict, which was to stain English countryside with blood of both French, Scots, and English for the next six decades before its final resolution. But more on that later.
By 1373 Constantine XI, nicknamed Draco by his subjects, was finally able to concentrate on the idea of recapturing former Imperial territories from the “barbarians” that, in his eyes, occupied them unlawfully for hundreds of years. Since the end of the Second Byzantine Civil War and recovery from the worst of the Plague, the Imperial economy has improved dramatically, raising the standards of living and creating a significant population surplus that wanted new lands, new frontiers to settle, and new ways to make a living. With the aristocracy of Byzantium suffering somewhat less during the Plague than the aristocracy of the other nations, there was still a relative surplus of younger sons of noble families that had little perspective in the civil service, and next to no chance to inherit any meaningful portion of the familial estates; the Imperial army was the one outlet popular amongst them, for it was not the question of if the Emperor orders foreign conquest; it was the question of when.
The Balkans, Constantine thought, provided perfect area for expansion. Not only they were in his eyes simply wayward rebel provinces of the Empire, but their people were for the most part Orthodox, and the strategic position of various Balkan states allowed for the Imperial forces to be within striking distance of Venice and in a position to threaten Hungary or Austria should the need ever emerge. Using bandit raids on border settlements as a pretext for invasion, Constantine ordered his generals to march against Serbia and Bosnia, and attempt to bring them back under the rule of the rightful Emperor.
Francis I died in 1374; through liberal “donations” Constantine kept the Pope and his son-in-law Francis II calm while the Imperial war machine rolled over the Serb resistance. Still, despite a very concerned and dedicated effort, the conquest and the subsequent pacification of Serbia and Bosnia was to take the remainder of Constantine’s reign – and even then the conquest was not as complete as the Byzantines would have wanted to believe. By the time of Constantine’s death in 1389 most of Serbia was under direct control of the Byzantines with the exception of a small enclave in the northwest of former Serb kingdom, and the ruler of Bosnia was forced to acknowledge Byzantine Emperor as his feudal suzerain.
It would not have been a far stretch to assume that any semi-competent Western Emperor would have been alarmed; however, while Francis II was far from incompetent, he had to face a growing crisis at home. With German nobility severely reduced by the Plague, most of the lesser nobles owing allegiance to the Habsburgs struggled to retain their hold on the lands still under their control; more and more commoners were promoted to positions of responsibility and authority that were suddenly freed up now that there was not enough high-born or well educated nobility and clergy to take them. Even Francis himself was forced to give much greater say in the matters of government to representatives of the merchants, craftsmen, and even few peasant-born advisors that advanced through the ranks of German society due to luck and individual talents. As a result, while the Western Empire was attempting to cope with significant changes in the nature of its society, Francis has to tread very carefully not to upset a delicate balance that emerged.
Besides, there was a shift in the public aspirations in the West. The crusading spirit was no longer there; the need for expansion subsided, at least temporarily. In the place of the Holy Roman Empire that was still one and indivisible, at least theoretically, a century ago, was a gathering of small states of varying power that agreed to recognize the concept of the Empire itself only in theory, and as the means to band together should an outside invader ever threaten them. There were no further grand undertakings on the part of the Empire – only by the individual houses within it; and the House of Habsburg was still the chief amongst them.
Popes came and went; few were able to leave more than a small mark on history. By 1384, however, with the ascent of Celestine VI to the throne of Saint Peter, the Holy See was to obtain one of its most easily recognizable and prominent advocates, as well as one of the greatest Popes of the century.
Celestine was one of the youngest to ever rise to the Pontificate, aged only twenty seven at the time; many whispered that he only got advanced due to unspeakable intrigues of his mother, who was rumored to have been the mistress of several prominent cardinals. No one expected him to amount to anything significant other than to serve as a convenient figurehead for the Church; his health was known to be poor and wanting, suffering from epilepsy and experiencing constant seizures, Celestine was not expected to live long. To surprise as much his own as that of his opponents, Celestine VI was to live to the ripe old age, dying at eighty five years old in 1442 and having survived numerous cardinals, Emperors, heresies, and plots all the while proving himself possibly one of the most important theologicians of not only the XIVth and XVth centuries, but of the entire period we came to know as the Late Middle Ages, and being the instrumental force behind the Seventh (commonly known as the Last) Crusade.
Celestine took little time in asserting his power, proving once and for all to the cardinals that the seemingly meek body hid the will of steel. After the deaths of several prominent Roman nobles on the grounds of “supporting heresies”, the cardinals were quick to fall in line and to follow the orders of this unlikely master. In 1387, Celestine took an unprecedented step and launched a campaign of conquest against the declining trade republic of Pisa, taking personal command of the Papal army on several occasions; the city surrendered on May 30th, 1388, and was added to the Papal dominion.
The second test of Celestine’s abilities as a leader came in late 1390 when Sicily revolted once again against the detested Habsburg rule, expelling the Habsburg king and inviting King Pedro VIII of Aragon to assume the crown of an island. Knowing that several rival powers hungrily eyed the island of Sicily, Celestine decided that he could not only serve as an arbiter, but promote the interests of both his religion and the Papal State itself, shrewdly maneuvering between the Habsburgs, the king of Aragon, the Byzantine Emperor, and the French ambitions. The Sicilian people, he declared, did not wish to be ruled by Habsburg king, choosing instead an equally pious and magnanimous king of Aragon; however, there was a point of contention that Sicily was a part of the Holy Empire; Aragon was not. Therefore, Celestine wrote to both Pedro and Francis, the solution would be to allow Pedro to keep the crown of Sicily, but make him subordinate to the Emperor in the feudal structure – and to the “acting Emperor” or Kaiser Francis.
This proposal would have been normally unacceptable to the proud Aragonese, however, if Aragon were to be considered a part of the Holy Roman Empire, its monarch would stand a good chance of getting elected to the Emperorship itself, since the Habsburg Kaisers did not appear to have any ambitions to claim the throne (which they held de facto, if not de jure). To Francis, losing Sicily was not a pleasant alternative; however, Apulia and Naples were still Habsburg dominions, and while Pedro might not have thought much about Francis’ feudal suzerainty, knowing that there would be little way for it to be enforced, Francis realized that the amount of power obtained from that was worth much more in the long term than the short-term inconvenience of having to give up a rich, but troublesome island.
Therefore, the agreement was hammered out in early 1392 just as another piece of disturbing news arrived on the scene. In February 1392, after a year-long siege, the city of Carthage fell to the forces of Khalil of Aleppo, who by then assumed the title of Caliph and ruled most of the territory of old, pre-division Abbassid Caliphate.
The Kingdom of Carthage, which we had largely ignored for most of this story, was a rather odd construct, established during the Hohenstaufen high point, and existing as essentially a loose confederation of baronies and princedoms from there on. Technically, the Holy Roman Emperor was also automatically the King of Carthage; however, with the overall decline of Imperial authority and the interregnum following Adrian’s claim on the Emperor’s duties, the throne was vacant, technically Papal responsibility, but practically ruled by shaky alliance of several powerful barons.
When in 1389 internal conflicts between the barons resulted in a de facto civil war, the losing baron, Ulrich von Staub pleaded with Khalil for help against his opponents, hoping to end the internecine conflict in a prompt and decisive manner; alas, this was not to be, for shortly after Khalil’s forces crossed into Tunis, von Staub was slain in a minor engagement, fighting alongside his knights. From there on, most of the remaining German barons submitted to the rule of the Caliph, who, as they heard, was of an enlightened and tolerant bent; the few that desired to contest the conquest gathered a rather large army and confronted the Caliph, however, due to their mutual suspicions of each other and struggle over who would be the supreme commander, the knights of Carthage suffered a defeat of enormous magnitude, survivors retreating in to the fortress of Carthage itself and sending desperate pleas to Europe for help. It was not long before they were able to plead their case in person, for Khalil had survivors rounded up, boarded upon a ship, and sent to Europe with the message not to interfere in North Africa, which he considered his domain. Furthermore, he told them, should the Christians choose to disregard the teachings of Prophet Jesus and not let the sleeping dogs lie, he will teach them the meaning of holy war.
It is likely that both the luckless barons and their conqueror knew well that there was next to no likelihood the capture of Carthage will remain unanswered; however, Khalil was now setting his sights on Sicily, once an Arab dominion, and still possessing a significant Arab population on the island. All he needed was the pretext, and he believed his army and navy more than capable of making good on a threat and then some.
These plans may have very well been brought to fruition if not for the hand of fate signaling for an unexpected twist. In early 1393 Khalil of Aleppo was murdered by a drunken eunuch over some small grievance; rumors abounded that his murder was the result of a plot by his son Nasir, impatient to inherit and fearful that his brothers might be preferred in line of succession. At any rate, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus IV, late Constantine’s son, no longer considered himself bound by his father’s treaty with Khalil marking their respective spheres of influence; knowing that the reborn Caliphate was at its weakest during the succession crisis, he enthusiastically sent delegates to Rome, where Pope Celestine VI was preaching Crusade.
At any other time Celestine would have probably rejected offers of crusade participation from the schismatic Greeks, expecting there to be a plenty of good Catholics willing to strike at the infidel, and fearing, rightfully so, of the Byzantine influence spreading to North Africa. This time, however, support in the Catholic world was scant, as most major powers were preoccupied with other affairs – France with its war in England, Aragon suspiciously eyeing Leon across the border all the while attempting to maintain and strengthen its rule in Sicily, Hungarians wary of the Byzantine conquests nearby, and the Habsburgs more concerned with keeping status quo within their domains than in foreign adventures of any kind. Still, there were a number of adventurers pledging their arms to the proposed Crusade, many of whom were of peasant or bourgeois origin, denied opportunity in their own lands that could be obtained with the force of arms abroad. There was a definite lack of crowned heads to lead the Seventh Crusade, but Celestine did not worry at the least about it; after all, the ambitions of powerful rulers doomed more than one expedition with great designs. It was just that there had been too few Catholic Europeans willing to lay their lives on the line for the holy war…
As shocking as the papal announcement of allowing the schismatic Nicephorus IV to take the cross was, it generated a rush of pledges from various European rulers wishing to participate in the Crusade – officially to send the Saracen menace back where it came from, but practically because of their fear of growing Byzantine power, and determination to limit its growth to the best of their ability. To Celestine VI this was a great diplomatic triumph; indeed, he went as far as to pledge a force of Papal troops to the Crusade, making it truly the Holy War with even the Supreme Pontiff contributing the military muscle for the good of all Christendom.
The great armies were therefore gathered in two separate places: Pisa for the Western Crusaders, and Constantinople for their Eastern counterparts. From there on, it was agreed, both armies shall mount a naval assault on Carthage, gaining an important foothold in North Africa and bringing Christian forces within a striking distance of the heart of Muslim Empire in the East – Egypt. In April 1395, fleets of the Eastern and Western halves of Christendom sailed on, carrying thousands of eager and well armed troops to their destination.
Having to travel longer distance, the Byzantine fleet arrived later, delayed by both the weather and a major engagement against the Caliphate’s navy near Crete. Some in the West pointed to potential different reason for this delay, however; while the Western fleet was able to advance practically unopposed, save for few minor engagements, the Western army was still estimated to be no more than half of the Eastern one, only about thirty thousand strong and, while formidable by itself, it did not possess the overwhelming power to completely eliminate Arab menace alone. By arriving late, the Byzantines not only would land on territory under friendly control, but also would let the Western army bear the brunt of casualties.
As the story goes, the Western army met with several initial successes, taking numerous small towns and fighting several pitched battles against the local garrisons. Carthage itself, however, proved impregnable to frontal assault, and even the primitive artillery available to the Crusaders could not breach its massive walls, ironically enough strengthened by generations of paranoid German barons. In July 1395, the main Arab army arrived, under command of general known only as Hassan and strengthened with the veterans of late Khalil’s campaign. The resulting battle is not described in much detail in the European sources, and for a good reason: the Western Crusaders did not give a very good account of themselves when faced with a numerically superior, well trained and well equipped enemy. Falling back to the original landing site, the Crusaders realized that their position was becoming desperate should the Byzantines be delayed any longer.
Luckily for them, masts of the great Byzantine war fleet appeared on the horizon just days after the hasty retreat; from the Imperial ships, thousands of disciplined, heavily armored soldiers dismantled, augmented by fearsome klibanophorii shock cavalry and Byzantine versions of the field cannon designed to sow fear and destruction amongst the enemy field troops by attaching several barrels together, allowing unprecedented volleys of death to be sent towards the enemy. This kind of weapon became known as the “Organ Gun” due to its uncanny visual similarity to the musical instrument, although due to difficulties in manufacturing these inventive cannon and levels of craftsmanship required, it would be years before they would be adopted by most armies. For now, gunpowder technology was still in its infancy, and heavy cavalry was still the king of the battlefield.
The Byzantine troops wasted no time in advancing towards the Arab army and forcing a decisive engagement. Surprised to see numerous fresh troops arriving on the field where he only expected to find tired, demoralized, and broken army, Hassan nevertheless pressed with an attack, knowing that there was still relative numerical parity, and the quality of his troops was at the very least comparable, if not superior to the enemy. Alas, the Byzantine preference for heavily armed and armored troops spelled doom for lighter, more maneuverable, but more vulnerable Arabs as the element of surprise, meticulous yet effective tactics, and wise choice of terrain decided the battle in favor of the Byzantines.
It must be pointed out that the Battle of Carthage was not a one-sided slaughter – the Arab army was forced to limp back to Egypt with significant casualties, however, it was not destroyed or rendered unable to fight, just largely devoid of offensive power. For Nicephorus IV, this was perfectly acceptable; while he considered Egypt to be a legitimate target and a possible future objective, he still had the annexation of Armenia Minor, as well as quelling the last vestiges of resistance in Serbia on his hands, preferring to settle the matter diplomatically now that the superiority of his arms had been proven. Therefore when Caliph Nasir was presented with an offer to surrender the former Kingdom of Carthage to the Byzantines in return for cessation of hostilities (and, as it has been revealed later, promise of trade concessions within the Empire and a non-aggression pact), he did not agonize much over the decision, choosing to agree rather than waste resources, money, and manpower over a piece of land of questionable value.
The Western Crusaders and the Pope were initially outraged, but could do very little, now that the Western Crusading army was either destroyed, or in no condition to contest rulership of Carthage. It is generally agreed by the future historians that Nicephorus IV’s handling of their demands to hand over Carthage to the ruler chosen by the Western Emperor was what determined the shape of relations between the East and the West for the next three centuries; had he been just slightly more willing to give in, or to offer a compromise, the diplomatic crisis could have been avoided. There is, of course, a significant minority of historians arguing that the confrontation between the East and the West at this stage was practically inevitable due to the growing power of the Eastern Empire and its ideas on expansion towards the West, and into the territories the Byzantines considered to be rightfully theirs; however, the truth lies hidden beyond the centuries, and we can only surmise as to the reasons for the epic struggle that followed over the next three centuries and that was fought as much on the battlefield as it was in the courts of the rulers, in throne rooms and taverns, parlors and salons of noble ladies and on the narrow streets where the assassins’ blades make quick work of their intended victims.
As it was, Nicephorus bluntly and without much ceremony ordered the Westerners to pack their possessions and to sail back whence they came from, unless they were prepared to swear allegiance to him and the Eastern Empire, and renounce the “Papist superstition”, as Catholicism was frequently called in the East at the times relations with the West were cold or worse. To the Pope’s protests he replied that the victor takes the spoils of war, and he fully intended to make good on that. Such bellicose posturing did little to improve reputation of Nicephorus IV in the Western courts, but it definitely raised his standing at home due to strong mistrust the Byzantines of all origins felt towards these Western “barbarians” claiming to be heirs of Rome.
It is thus fitting that Nicephorus IV emerges from the pages of history as more of a soldier-Emperor with less than stellar diplomatic skills – appropriately enough for the man who gained the Byzantines their first stronghold in North Africa since the VIIth century through what could be only construed as ruthless and opportunistic tactics with no regard for the well-being of his allies or for the diplomatic consequences. To him, the saying that “might makes right” was the axiom by which he lived and died; only the relatively short span of his reign prevented him from attempting more conquests, as he undoubtedly saw himself another Justinian, and fully intended to live up to his famous role model.
In a meanwhile, Francis II sent ambassadors to the Pope pointing out that to deal with this heretic, an Emperor was required, someone strong enough to lead the rulers of Europe in a show of unity and strength, and to oppose the Byzantines politically as much as militarily. In his letters, Francis offered himself to this “unwelcome, but necessary duty”.
The Pope Celestine, although unwilling to lessen even his theoretical authority, did realize that there was hardly a man in Europe better qualified for the job than Francis, whose extensive alliance and marriage networks ensured cooperation from rulers from within and without the Empire, in command of powerful armies, and possessing of not a little diplomatic clout. Therefore, he sent the Imperial crown to Francis, instructing him to be the worldly leader of the Empire with the title of Augustus, while praising him for his continued obedience to its spiritual leader and the faith he represents. The latter passage was intended for setting a legal precedent of strictly determining where the Emperor’s authority ended, and who was supreme in the Empire; Francis could not care less as he accepted the crown from the Papal legate in 1396. He and the Pope were working for the same goal, and were two of the same, power-hungry, unscrupulous, yet with excellent diplomatic abilities and willingness to sacrifice for the gain that may not materialize quickly – to them both the ends justified the means. Therefore Francis was perfectly willing to accept supposed Papal supremacy on paper as long as it did not interfere with his plans; Celestine was willing to allow Francis free hand outside of Italy for the promise of Habsburg protectorate.
In 1398, Nicephorus IV was killed in a border skirmish while personally leading his guards against the Serb rebels; his successor was his son Alexius VIII, whose first act upon claiming the throne was to order immediate blinding or castration of all his brothers, therefore rendering every other potential claimant to the throne ineligible and securing his power against potential rebellion. Ironically it could be said that the civil wars and brutal internecine slaughter that often accompanied succession in the Eastern Empire in late XIVth and XVth centuries were what made it stronger during the time by eliminating potentially weak monarchs before they had a chance to rule and bring down the entire establishment with ill-advised actions or misguided policies; it has been argued that this inhumane, yet surprisingly effective mechanism was responsible for a string of effective and powerful monarchs from the ascent of Constantine XI Draco all the way through the succession of Nicephorus VI more than two hundred years later, when succession laws were outlined in a more direct manner.
Despite the manner in which Alexius VIII ascended the throne, his reign was characterized more by diplomatic finesse than by overt aggression, with the threat of brute force always present in the wings, but never openly flaunted in front of his opponents. When, however, the circumstances required it, his military was brutal and efficient, as witnessed in subjugation of southern Georgia and naval assault on Crimea. Alexius VIII is often overlooked as a competent, but unspectacular Emperor during his thirty two year reign, however, the Imperial expansion initiated by his son and continued by his grandson would have been much more difficult without the solid political and economic foundation secured during his mostly peaceful reign.
Although the news of Nicephorus’ death were well received in the West, Francis II was still suspicious of his Eastern counterpart, who wisely chose not to give a casus belli by any rash or poorly thought-through action, instead in 1399 offering the Western frontier of his North African possessions to Francis to allow settlement of Germans and establishment of separate “Duchy of Mauritania”, with the Marinid portion of North Africa to expand to should there ever be a need to do so. Still, despite these diplomatic overtures, relations between the East and the West continued to gradually deteriorate, although it would still be some time before the war of words fought in the throne rooms became the contest of arms fought on the battlefields of Europe and Middle East.
Rise Of The Heresy (1400-1430)
Golgotha, rise up
from your tomb
Devil's had a taste of holy water
Lost children need your guiding hand
Take them through the fire of the promised land
Now we've come together
We're all waiting for a sign
If it takes forever
We believe in the divine
Grand Canyon, source of all our dreams
Protected from a billion years of evil
Golden fire - thunder all around
Covenants will cover up you sinners
Now we've come together
We're all waiting for a sign
If it takes forever
We believe in the divine
Overcoming tyranny to desecrate the entity - satanical
Laying waste this sick disease
That crippled, maimed, feel to our knees - like Jericho
Pile of skulls crunched under foot
Torched remains are crying out - satanical
Rising up to purge and scourge the killing of our paradise - like Jericho
Halford - “Golgotha”
While the Eastern and the Western Empires conducted their clandestine diplomacy under thinly veiled threats of war, our story shifts once again to the long-suffering island of Sicily, now under the rule of Aragon. The Aragonese presence on the island was somewhat of a paradox; though on one hand purveyors of devout Catholicism, the Aragonese had to account for lacking manpower to effectively enforce their religion upon the island’s non-Catholic inhabitants, and were ill-prepared to deal with any threat of insurrection should their policies prove as unpopular as those of their predecessors; therefore, Aragon had to show more lenience in its rule of Sicily than it ever had in the past, and for a period of fifteen years the unspoken agreement between the island’s inhabitants and their erstwhile king was followed without questions.
By 1407 the king of Aragon realized that in Sicily, he had a perfectly positioned center of maritime trade between the Caliphate across the sea to the south, Byzantium to the east, German and Italian states to the north, and Iberian peninsula to the west. Combined with the island’s already considerable wealth, developing Sicily as a source of Aragonese wealth was just too great a temptation not to follow. By this time, Pedro VIII was dead, succeeded by his son Alfonso – however, the change in leadership did not signal a change in policies, and development money poured across the Mediterranean to expand cities, develop the harbors, and improve public works on the island.
The people were quick to notice the effort Aragon was putting into its Sicilian venture, along with a generally liberal social climate prevalent on the island, much to the dismay of Pope Celestine; traders flocked to Sicily from every corner of the Mediterranean, making the island rich and its master in far-away Aragon even richer. However, not all looked upon Alfonso’s newfound economic success with kind eyes.
Chief amongst those who were appalled at the situation in Sicily were the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor, former concerned (rightfully so) with the lack of enforcement of stringent Catholicism on the island, and latter concerned with trade revenues Sicily took from Constantinople, previously considered the preeminent center of trade in the Mediterranean. A formal alliance between the two would have been next to impossible due to the strain on Catholic-Orthodox relations caused by the Seventh Crusade, however, diplomats often disguised as traveling priests, mercenary soldiers, or visiting aristocrats began to circulate between Rome and Constantinople with alarming frequency.
Under most circumstances Celestine would not have bothered to deal with the heretic, kinslayer, and a likely backstabber that Alexius VIII was; however, after the death of Francis II in 1402 and his successor Charles V being occupied by rebellion of German barons, there was no other nearby power capable of providing assistance to the Pope’s plans. Thus the Holy See and Second Rome could have been best described as odd bedfellows, if not outright enemies agreeing only that Sicily under the rule of Aragon as it stood was a menace to both.
There was another problem, besides conflicting ambitions. The Byzantines were prepared to send money or agents to destabilize Sicily enough to make Aragonese control troublesome at best, but sending an army was out of question for Alexius, who realized that in the aftermath of his father’s diplomatic blunders the presence of Byzantine troops in Sicily could be considered a reason enough for the Westerners to set aside their present differences and unite for long enough to start a full-scale war, an event Alexius wanted to avoid at all costs. The Papal States, while covering a respectable amount of territory in Italy, did not possess the military power to invade the island and enforce the Papal will, especially since a number of other powers would consider Papal invasion a legitimate casus belli to attempt to claim an island for themselves; calling upon the Habsburg king of Naples was out of question since the memory of the Pope mediating the dispute between the Habsburgs and the Aragonese was still fresh in his mind, and any arrangement that did not result in complete return of Sicily under the Habsburg rule was out of question.
The Byzantines wanted their old province back, but were unwilling to commit major military forces to the operation; the Pope wanted a Catholic Sicily with zero tolerance for any practices that strayed from the path of the True Faith – preferably not in Byzantine hands, and preferably without implicating the Pope to the king of Aragon, who still possessed sufficient military might to threaten the Pope directly. The king of Aragon simply wanted to keep the island in his hands by whatever means necessary.
When in 1408 Alexius VIII was distracted by raids on his territory from the Khanate of Caucasus and committed significant military forces to suppressing this threat to his borders, it became clear to the Pope that the Byzantines were not the place to look for help. Instead, after realizing that the negotiations went nowhere, Celestine turned to an old and time-honored idea originally initiated during the Pontificate of Innocent III – the Inquisition. He took great pains in maintaining the overall appearance of willing to continue negotiations with the Byzantines while utilizing some clever and undoubtedly inventive diplomacy to suggest to Alfonso of Aragon that the Byzantine agents have infiltrated Sicily to a great extent, sowing discord and general dissatisfaction with his rule. Instead of succumbing to the vices of these heretics, Celestine proposed, would the Sicilians not better be served by groups of dedicated missionaries who would also do the double duty in weeding out and nullifying Byzantine infiltrators? In spring 1409, such proposal was sent to the court of Aragon along with the implied mention that while there was a Kaiser in the Empire in the person of Rudolph I (the son and successor of Charles V, who died after a bout with dysentery while campaigning against the last vestiges of baronial rebellion), the throne of Emperors was vacant, and the Papal favor went a long way…
Under most circumstances Alfonso would have rejected the Papal offer out of hand, not willing to risk widespread rebellion for essentially no gain; however, with the Byzantine interest in the island being certain and supported by undeniable proof, albeit greatly exaggerated by the Papal envoys, allowing the missionaries on the island could have been a reasonable price to pay for undisputed control of Sicily, especially should the Imperial title be thrown into the equation (which the Papal envoys emphasized to great lengths). Granted, Alfonso had very little trust in the envoys’ promises, however the Byzantine threat was real enough for him to allow the missionaries in.
It is clear that by 1410 or so the Pope Celestine begun to see himself as an arbiter of sorts, the ultimate authority on all matters temporal and spiritual in nature in all of Christendom. After all, he could look back at his Pontificate and claim most of it as an undisputed success – Muslims expelled from Carthage, imposing his judgment on kings and what passed for an Emperor in the west, and achieving a string of diplomatic victories unrivaled by any of his predecessors. Now, his thoughts turned to matters of theology, and the challenge of reconciling his spiritual status with possessing temporal power as a head of state.
True, the Donation of Constantine gave his predecessors the right to dispose of the Western Empire as they see fit; however, in the centuries since the claim was first made its validity eroded significantly to where many openly questioned its legitimacy, and some went as far as to call it a complete forgery. Therefore, some reconciliation had to be made that did not depend on a validity of the document that even Celestine himself had doubts about. At once the Pope set to work, appointing commission of several cardinals and bishops over whose meetings he presided as he saw fit, with the goal of examining the scriptures for irrefutable evidence that the Vicar of Christ is indeed justified in acting as a temporal power.
Working day and night for several years, frequently in debate and disagreement, the commission finally presented its findings in 1414. Despite having searched the holy writings for clues and evidence of temporal claims of the Papacy, the passage that the commission decided to base its claim on was the same one frequently cited as instituting the Pontificate as such, in the Book of Matthew:
Matthew XVI: 18-19
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven
In particular, the last sentence was interpreted by Celestine and his subordinates as meaning that only the Pope himself as the direct successor of Saint Peter was to be the bridge between this world and the next by the means of Christian faith, and the Pope’s actions on Earth determined the accessibility of heaven to the believers. Moreover, this also directly implied that since “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”, the Pontiff could not make an error of judgment, for his actions were directly connected to heaven, and who but the holiest of men could claim direct connection to such?
Thus was born the doctrine known thereon as the Papal infallibility, a concept that the true Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, could not make an error of judgment, and thus a Papal testimony on any subject matter would be considered the final verdict on it. Understandably, the announcement split Catholic clergy into those who accepted the findings of the Papal commission, and those who took them with a healthy dose of skepticism, citing the examples of Popes past making errors of judgment that were frequently costly, and occasionally outright disastrous; the Papists countered this claim with one of their own, declaring in retrospect, the errors of the previous Popes were part of the God’s plan for this world, and that some of those making said mistakes were not even true Popes as per se, instead being usurpers and impostors.
The debate reached a boiling point in 1417, when Celestine himself forbid denouncement of the commission’s findings under the pain of formal excommunication; Rudolph I of Habsburg, as de facto Emperor, readily agreed to enforce the reigning doctrine in the lands under his family’s control, as the Habsburgs’ special status within the Empire came about through the formal Papal announcement, and the doctrine of infallibility was indeed retroactive… Within three years, most of the dissenting voices had been silenced, occasionally through threats of violence, but more frequently by less subtle and pointedly brutal means. Thousands had been known to perish in the flames of Church-sanctioned burnings of heretics, presided over by the unseen but ever present watch of the Holy Inquisition.
Of those that still chose to deny the Pope, few sanctuaries remained; some attempted crossing over into the Byzantine Empire or into the lands of the Rus, where Papal supremacy was not only openly questioned, but also outright dismissed as having no theological grounds. More of the heretics from Southern Europe fled into the Muslim-held lands, where at least some semblance of religious tolerance still existed (with Granada being the one notable exception).
Of the purveyors of heresy, the one Alessandro del Piazza was the most prominent. Formerly a Catholic Cardinal, he was one of the few to disagree with the consensus of the Papal commission, defying the Pope in refusing to acknowledge his claims of temporal as well as spiritual power. If the Pope was to be the worldly ruler, he claimed, what use was the Empire, long thought of amongst the theologicians as the temporal arm of the Church? And how could supposedly the holiest of all men order and participate in slaughter, conquest, or wars of revenge – decidedly the activities unbefitting any good Christian, let alone the head of God’s Church? It was the Church’s duty to provide absolution to the worldly rulers, to keep them from straying from the righteous path – but the worldly duties, del Piazza argued, should be left to men of the world. And if in recognition of this the Holy Father failed, how could he be infallible?
Even before the heresy was officially anathemized, del Piazza realized that his hopes of finding support in Italy to reverse the doctrine were slim; a failed assassination attempt further convinced him that this fight could not be won via dispute. Yet where could such as he go as not to be used as a pawn in some sort of political game, sacrificed for minor gains without achieving anything? There was only one alternative.
In 1417, same year as Celestine issued the proclamation of the new dogma, del Piazza boarded a merchantman bound for the Balearic Isles. From the beginning, his voyage was anything but an easy one, surviving sea sickness, a bout with pirates, and a run-in with the Genovese patrol that nearly ended up sinking del Piazza’s ship near Sardinia, however, at last he was safe from the Papal persecution amongst the most unlikely of all allies – the Cathar principality of the Balearic Islands, where the former cardinal found refuge and begun to earn a modest keep by teaching children of local elite classical philosophy.
It was there that del Piazza begun to question his earlier faith, and examine the theology behind Catharism. By now, the Cathar faith had changed significantly from its emergence over two centuries prior, having been heavily influenced by interaction with Granada’s Muslim majority and Sufi mysticism, somewhat popular amongst the educated in that state. While there are better treatises written throughout the ages examining the Cathar doctrine and its influence on the Sundering, it is worth noting that the core of the heresy was still the idea that the material world represented evil, whereas spiritual world was the only source of goodness and, coincidentally, the only place there true goodness could exist in its pure and unaltered form; at the same time, the Cathar belief of early XVth century included the idea that God had enough concern for the physical world to send an apparition known as Jesus, teaching the way to God.
At the same time, several concepts previously crucial to the Cathar faith began to fade away, in particular the idea that all believers were to lead the life of the Perfecti if they were to achieve heavenly reward, and not be reborn once again upon the earth. Instead, the earlier belief that the Perfecti were able to wipe away one’s sins and allow the believer to reach heaven was further developed, favored by the ruling elite of the principality in that the worldly pleasures and worldly matters could be pursued by “lesser” men (meaning anyone but the Perfecti) without recrimination as long as they repented before their passing and were “purified”.
This understandably created a controversy within the Cathar society, with most of the ruling elite and the powerful Seafarer Guild (the pirate organization that provided for the islands’ protection and for much of its income) favoring the new interpretation of the doctrine, whereas a number of diehards clang to the old one. By the time of del Piazza’s arrival, the Balearics had just emerged from what essentially was a small scale civil war, with the “worldly” faction prevailing.
To the exiled cardinal, it was an ultimate irony that the faith founded as a protest against Catholicism acquired more than superficial similarity to it, in particular the practice of purifying one’s sins before death while allowing for life of luxury beforehand being very similar to the newly created practice of selling indulgences by the Church in order to raise funds, proving that salvation was less of an individual struggle than something provided by a qualified holy man. Nevertheless, a scholar in him was intrigued at the opportunity to study a different set of beliefs first hand, even if the Catholic in him was horrified at the thought.
As Alessandro del Piazza submerged into the intricacies of the Cathar theory, our attention shifts once again, this time to the land once occupied by the Kingdom of England, but now practically divided between Scotland and France. In this turbulent scenario of a country torn by warfare and foreign conquest, the most unlikely character has emerged out of nowhere and into the spotlight – Anne of York, more commonly known as Virgin Anne.
Little is known about her whereabouts, although in light of the subsequent events it is unlikely that she was a simple peasant girl as the folk tales like to portray her; more likely she was an illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat, or even somehow related to the royal line, now merely existing as the “Dukes of Norfolk”, since it is very unlikely someone of low social standing would even be allowed anywhere near the royals’ palace, let alone have a relatively easy time obtaining an audience. Nevertheless, when Anne appeared in front of the “Duke” Henry in 1421, claiming that she had seen a vision of Virgin Mary that commanded her to personally lead English armies to victory in an uprising that would “make Albion greater than the barbarian and the Gaul”, Henry did not take long to be persuaded – the folk story claims that several miraculous events took place to change Henry’s opinion, however, some scholars speculate that Henry was already considering fully fledged rebellion, and Anne simply provided a convenient rallying cry for his followers.
The rest of the story of how the Hundred Years War ended could be told rather quickly. The English troops turned against the French first, initially with the enthusiastic Scottish help, retaking London in fall 1423 and having Henry formally crowned there in early 1424. While the Pope refused to acknowledge the newly crowned king, the truth of the matter was that Celestine had no effective power north of the Channel, and therefore the proclamation was largely ignored.
Then, it was the Scots’ turn. By 1428 most formerly English territories had been liberated, and Wales set up as an English puppet-state with Henry’s son Edward given the crown there. Although the Scots originally hoped that by using up all their manpower and resources in expelling the French the English would be easy prey to uncontested Scottish control of the island, even their best troops were crushed by the victorious English led by Anne of York, already a legend in her time after winning a number of crucial battles seemingly on enthusiasm alone. Even Anne’s death in 1429 did little to stem the tide of English advance, stopping only once the entire south of Britain was under control of the English crown.
With the French and the Scots beaten, thoughts of king Henry turned towards the south, where in Rome the Pope Celestine refused to acknowledge his rightful claim, and went as far as to excommunicate the King. To add insult to injury, during the war, the coffers of England were nearly bled dry despite the victories; at the same time, the Church of England got richer, if anything, through tithing the peasants and their feudal masters no matter who their allegiance belonged to. Clearly, something had to be done about the “state within the state”, as Henry called the Catholic Church. As Henry pondered what action to take, time went on. The year was 1430.
Lion And The Heretic (1430-1442)
Paralyse the actions of the weak
Force fed propaganda preying on the meek
Individuals resisting defeat
Manipulate the colonies infected by their seed
Vampires of possession
Shroud of cold distrust
Watching as you finally fall
Then drag you through the dust
The only way to save your soul
From scum with hearts of stone – reconquering the throne
Kreator – “Reconquering The Throne”
Much could be said about long and distinguished reign of King Henry VI of England, both with respect to his undoubted military prowess, the general luck that seemed to follow him and his nation, and long string of diplomatic successes that resulted in forging of what would eventually turn into the British Empire centuries later. In 1430, however, his position was still rather precarious, owing his continued existence not only to strikes of military fortune, but also to somewhat lessened belligerence on the part of his neighbors. Scotland was hesitant to commit more men and resources to a hard and potentially futile battle; France, albeit lacking in neither manpower nor ambition, was temporarily paralyzed by an internal crisis resulting from king Charles IV’s handling of the war, and wracked by rebellion of a number of lesser members of the royal family, claiming that Charles’ relative incompetence in England warrants his removal, and replacement with someone more capable. That left Henry with a short window of opportunity that he intended to use to its fullest extent.
In 1430, Henry entered negotiations with Charles IV of France, offering his help in quelling the rebellion as well as cessation of his formal claim upon old Norman territories in France in return for recognizing him as the lawful King of England, and for a treaty of non-aggression. While the English claim on some of the French territories dated back centuries and by now had been nothing more than a formality, this concession was a major step towards changing England’s place in the continental politics, and separating its history from its common past with France.
As much as Charles loathed the idea of accepting help from the hated English, his fortunes were in decline, having suffered several minor (but significant for the enemy morale) defeats at the rebels’ hands, and therefore acceptance of Henry’s terms was the relatively honorable choice that he could take while claiming at least a partial victory through cessation of the English land claim in France. By 1433, the loyalist forces had defeated the rebels with help from somewhat sizeable English expeditionary force. The warming relations between the two powers were even further cemented by a marriage of Henry’s daughter to one of Charles’ sons, future Philip VI in 1434.
While the French civil war came closer to its conclusion, Henry began looking for different allies that could help him to bring England to a position of dominance in Europe, and effectively oppose any of those desiring England’s lands and crown. In 1435, he entered an alliance with Denmark, adding Norway to the “Northern Alliance” a year later, and a number of small Northern German states within the next decade.
However, while all of these were significant accomplishments for a man that less than two decades ago could not even call himself by his rightful kingly title, Henry VI is usually remembered for a different act, the one that earned him the epithet of The Heretic outside of his own borders (where his accomplishments resulted in a different nickname, Henry the Lion – ironically resulting in much confusion of him with Barbarossa’s old opponent in papers of less attentive history students throughout the continent), for in 1437 he finally resolved to act against the power of the Catholic Church in England, placing it under the most severe restrictions, and confiscating much Church wealth. While not going as far as to renounce the Catholicism altogether, he placed a retroactive tax upon the Church property that happened to be so oppressive that most of it was collected by the English tax collectors as the payment of “back taxes”. Despite the churchmen’s protests, the English treasury began to fill up rather quickly due to this and other radical, yet effective measures, setting the country’s economy on solid footing for the first time in decades.
To understand why Henry not only resolved upon a previously unthinkable action, but was able to suffer little of the consequences of such a radical move, we need to examine the historical background against which his decision was made. Throughout the end of the Hundred Years War, Anne of York became one of the most beloved figures in all of England due both to her stunning military successes, and her apparent life of asphyxiating piety that left her character unblemished in the time when even the most well-reputed figures of prominence had a number of skeletons in their collective closets. The sequence of events resulting in her premature death is too long and complex to be related here; however, it must be said that she is believed to have been betrayed to the Scots by a member of her retinue, a Catholic priest named Mark Baker. After suffering through a humiliating trial where she was accused of witchcraft, Anne was sentenced to being executed by the tribunal comprised almost exclusively of clergy and presided over by a bishop; her execution was said to have been so brutal that even seasoned veterans of the war went pale at the sight of badly mangled and burned corpse of England’s savior.
With continuous Papal refusal to repel the judgment and to clear their heroine’s name, the English people had little love for the Papacy, whom they perceived as covertly aiding their Scottish and French enemies; the Papal refusal to recognize the King of England as such did little to endear Celestine and his followers to the people of a nation so proud of their recently won independence. Moreover, recent events in Europe suggested that there was preciously little the Papal allies could do at the moment, for in 1436, tensions finally erupted in Sicily when the Papal emissaries accused a prominent local citizen of witchcraft and promptly sentenced him to be burnt at stake.
Within a day Sicilian citizenry was in arms; mobs broke into the jail housing the supposed heretic, brushing away meager resistance of the guards. The inquisitors themselves barely escaped with their lives, disguising themselves as beggars while making their way to the harbor and back to Italy. While the Aragonese attempted their best to pacify the island without retorting to extreme measures, another source of trouble was brewing in the East – Michael VIII, the Byzantine Emperor was reported to make preparations for assault on Sicily.
It must be said that Michael, commonly considered as an Emperor in Nicephorus IV’s mold, ascended the throne with more than a little blood on his hands even by the standards of the time. At the time of Alexius VIII’s passing in 1430, the Emperor left two sons and six grandsons behind, all with ambitions and designs on the throne; of these, then-seventeen year old Michael was the youngest grandson of Alexius, and as such was considered an unlikely candidate, instead expecting Michael’s uncle John to inherit. Knowing that his fate would be sealed should John succeed, Michael formed a conspiracy with his brothers Demetrios and Thomas, descending upon their unsuspecting uncle with a troop of Bulgarian mercenaries during late Alexius’ funeral and slaughtering John along with his many supporters. As brutal and barbaric as this act seemed to the citizenry of Constantinople, Michael was able to fabricate an accusation that John and his sons poisoned Alexius, hoping to inherit; aided with liberal gifts to the citizens and many prominent nobles, and with the veiled threat of force, the city was pacified within days.
This left three brothers and their father Basil theoretically primed for succession; however, Michael was not content with a mere assurance of succession for his branch of the family. Within a week of John’s death, what appeared to be a hunting accident took the life of Demetrios; ever the conniver, Michael made all evidence point to Thomas, and took it upon himself to avenge the “fratricide”. While theoretically Basil V was crowned Emperor along with his last surviving son, the father was not to last long, already a broken man due to losses of most of his family and with a gnawing suspicion that his youngest son was responsible. When in 1431 Basil died, officially of grief and wounds sustained years ago during the military campaign, but more probably due to liberally administered dose of poison, Michael VIII became the sole ruler of the Eastern Empire at the age of eighteen.
If there were fears that the new Emperor’s only real talent was in disposing of unwanted or troublesome family members, they soon proved to be unfounded, as despite such an ominous beginning, the rest of Michael’s rule was characterized by a dazzling combination of military victories and domestic policies that owed more to good common sense than to bloodthirst. Within a year of his succession Michael proved to be every bit the autocrat that his grandfather was, retaining most of the advisors from the previous regime and continuing with the domestic and military reforms started by Alexius. In 1434, Byzantine troops seized Antioch, and a year later they threatened Aleppo itself, which was saved only by a rather humiliating treaty the Caliphate was forced to sign, forcing it to pay tribute to the Empire as well as to provide safe pilgrimage route to Christian pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem.
In 1436, as Sicily erupted into flames of discontent once again, Michael saw the opportunity presented in the West, and began to gather an invasion force, making every apparent intention of attacking in Sicily and reintegrating the island into the Eastern Empire the part of which it once was. In a meanwhile, the situation on the island stabilized somewhat, but only barely so, after the king of Aragon promised the islanders to expel the Inquisition; nevertheless, to Celestine and his Habsburg allies this was simply a casus belli. In early 1437, the Papal and Habsburg armies invaded Sicily, presumably to suppress the Heresy, but in fact with the plan to divide the island between their respective domains.
It was at this stage that Henry of England knew his numerous enemies were not only preoccupied at other fronts, but also unable to threaten him in any manner other than verbally; the great seizure of Church’s property followed shortly thereafter. More importantly, Henry hammered out alliances with a number of Mediterranean states, including, scandalously enough, Muslim Granada and Orthodox Byzantium. More importantly though, another group asked Henry for protection and offered their allegiance to him – Cathars of the Balearic Islands, who realized that even far-away, England could be counted upon to provide reasonable degree of safety through their network of allies in an increasingly more hostile and intolerant world.
To one resident of the Balearic Islands, the union with England was a godsend. Old Alessandro del Piazza, though condemned a heretic and sentenced to death on the continent, longed for return to civilization; despite mysticism of the Cathar ways and their religion intriguing him to no end, the Balearic civilization was still strange and alien to him; even if his home in Italy was forlorn, he hoped to end his days among the people that were at least good Christians. In 1438, del Piazza began his maritime travel north via Granada, stopping over in Leon, and finally making it to London.
Upon hearing of such a distinguished visitor, Henry decided that the time was right for yet another ambitious endeavor. Long has England been considered backwater of Europe, neither the cultural nor the educational center. Hence, Henry declared, in order to raise the generations of men to serve England in the years to come, the University of London must be founded, staffed by the best thinkers in Europe. The former cardinal was even further delighted to receive an offer to head the new university, reporting straight to the King himself.
Over the course of his life with the Cathars, del Piazza wrote a number of treatises on their culture, religion, and the way of life, previously unknown to the Christian world at large. While most of his works were not to be published until after his death, the Italian soon became center of intellectual and religious debate in London, freely dispensing his knowledge and participating in discussions with aspiring theologicians attending the university, ultimately reaching attention of nobility and even the royal court. Despite his death in 1441, his ideas and experience found fertile soil in the minds of Englishmen, sowing the seeds which would not be reaped for quite some time.
Among del Piazza’s students, the most famous one was a young priest named John Byrnes, the man many felt was directly responsible for the Sundering. It was to him that the responsibility of publishing del Piazza’s works and memoirs fell, and, combined with his own works that were to be unleashed upon the world in the following several decades, Byrnes began the process that led England towards the course it was to follow for a significant portion of its history. It must also be noted that 1439 invention of the printing press in Novgorod and subsequent spread of the invention westward, from which England (as by then an ally of Novgorod) benefited, did much to increase the rate of literacy in Europe; by the end of the XVth century, it was rare for a city dweller to be completely illiterate, and amongst the clergy and the nobility, illiteracy was considered to be a shameful deficiency. With these potent weapons, the new heresies spread much more rapidly, acquiring followers with speed previously unheard of.
At the same time the Orthodox world, far from being the land of bloodthirsty and illiterate barbarians many liked to paint it as in the West, was growing in power. By early 1400s the four-way struggle over who would rule what would eventually become Russia polarized into two factions – one that of Moscow and Kazan Khanate, by now a Muscovite vassal state, and another of Novgorod and Tver. In 1428 the latter alliance invaded the Muscovite lands, initiating the war that was to last for the next decade until 1439 capture of Moscow itself by Tverian soldiers. From there on, Muscowy began to fade into irrelevance, first with its rulers forced to give up its claim to the title of Grand Prince and to acknowledge superiority of Princes of Tver, then with it being forced to split into two principalities, that of Vladimir (subordinate to Tver), and Moscow proper, subordinate to Novgorod. By 1500 the principality of Moscow lost the last traces of its once proud independence, and was formally annexed to Novgorod, only few years after Vladimir became official part of Tver.
The reborn Kievan Rus enjoyed a number of successed as well, expanding northward to where its borders met those of Tver and forcing the king of Poland into payment of an annual tribute. With such resolution of conflict in Russia, three principalities emerged, all sharing just enough common understanding to prevent a full-scale war, but eyeing each other with wary suspicion, knowing that their peoples’ full potential and impact on history may never be realized without one nation strong enough to unify all of Russian blood in to a mighty Empire. For now, another contest between these states was that of ideologies, with Tver employing the form of state most consistent with Byzantine autocracy, where the Prince held all power and the citizens’ assembly’s role was gradually diminished along with that of the aristocrats; Kiev, on the other hand, had more in common with highly aristocratic feudal societies of Central Europe due to looking in that direction to expand. Finally, Novgorod’s dependence on maritime power and its continuous interaction with nations of Northern and Western Europe led it towards becoming somewhat of a curiosity, a de facto republic not dissimilar to that of Venice with the title of the Prince being in effect little more than that of a highly ranked general and official spokesperson for the state. Sooner or later, the three vastly different worldviews were bound to crash, deciding the fate of Russia and its people.
While the forces of Aragon clashed against the Papal-Habsburg alliance, Michael VIII of Byzantium decided upon a daring move. Instead of attempting to attack in Sicily or Apulia as he had been widely expected to, Michael ordered his generals to march through the Balkans and towards Venice. He believed that Venice would prove to be a strategically invaluable stronghold to not only cement his hold on the Balkans, but also to provide a base for future expansion into Italy, frustrating the Habsburgs whom he perceived to be significantly weaker than the Eastern Empire, unified by the sense of purpose.
In 1440 Michael’s army lay siege to Venice just as the newly built grand Byzantine fleet faced off against numerically inferior, but more experienced and better equipped Venetians. The subsequent naval battle went down in history as the greatest naval engagement in the Mediterranean since Actium a millennium and a half ago; for three days and two nights the Byzantine galleys and dromons attempted to maintain the blockade of Venice just as the Venetians tried in vain to break through. On the morning of the third day, however, the situation changed once again with the arrival of the Genovese navy. Although the Venetians and the Genovese had little love for each other due to centuries of military and trading competition that frequently grew into outright conflict, to Genovese an idea of Byzantines in Northern Italy was an abomination; better to save an old rival from complete annihilation after its main power had been already broken, they reasoned, than to let an aggressive conqueror whose appetite would only grow with time in close to home.
The arrival of the Genovese turned the scales of battle against the Byzantines, however at the great cost to the once-proud Venetian navy. Out of a hundred ships that The Most Serene Republic brought into battle, only thirty or so were seaworthy at its conclusion; even though the Byzantine losses were much greater, they were replaceable, whereas the Venetian ones were not.
This Pyrrhic victory enabled Venice to continuously bring in supplies and reinforcements, however, tensions ran high between the Venetians and their erstwhile Genovese suppliers, whom the Venetians greatly mistrusted. Still, this uneasy partnership did much to frustrate the Byzantine commanders, who could not mount an effective assault on the city, and whose blockade was incomplete without the once-proud Byzantine navy, now rotting on the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. By 1442, Michael has had enough; the Venetians could not expel the Byzantine army, yet the Byzantines could not force an unconditional surrender. Therefore, Michael had to contend with the retaking of formerly Venetian Dalmatia and Istria, leaving the city itself an independent nation.
There were other reasons for Michael’s decision to end the Venetian War. In late 1441, the sheer numbers of Habsburg and Papal troops finally turned the tide of the war in Sicily; the writing on the wall was clear. Once Sicily was pacified, Leopold I of Habsburg would undoubtedly decide to interfere in the war that, as far as he was concerned, was fought disturbingly close to his domain. It was more important to Michael to obtain better defensive position should Leopold attack, and to protect his flanks; by now Michael began to see himself in a position similar to that of Justinian, and Italy was the prize he intended to obtain, and to keep.
At this stage, machinations of Henry of England began to bear fruit no one truly expected. With the Northern German territories always culturally and economically closer to the Baltic world than to Mediterranean one, it was no wonder that Henry’s allies in Denmark, Sweden, and Novgorod often engaged in very profitable trade with the North German city-states, that now made a pact amongst themselves to provide for advantageous trade terms, as well as military cooperation and protection against anyone desiring their considerable wealth, calling their union the Baltic League. The earlier Habsburg policy of focusing on their own lands and allowing lesser princes to do what they want in their territories led to effective disintegration of the Imperial authority in Northern Germany, as the Habsburg rulers failed to enforce their will or to maintain peace amongst the lesser feudal lords. Now, some of the still technically Imperial subjects decided to take matters into their own hands.
To Henry and his allies, this was a welcome development, and much of English and Byzantine gold began to pour into the Baltic League coffers, causing Leopold to address the matter immediately lest northern territories renounce the Empire altogether. In this climate, the Byzantines were able to consolidate their Balkan gains relatively unmolested while their Emperor made plans for the next conquest that would restore to his Empire its former glory.
In a meanwhile, in 1442 the Pope Celestine died in his sleep from advanced age. With his death, the Church lost last of its great Popes for many centuries to come; during his Pontificate the Papal States not only increased in size considerably, but also gained much in prestige; the authority of the Papacy has been at its greatest in over two centuries, never to be regained to this extent again. The doctrines promulgated in his reign were to shape the ecclesiastic policy of the Church for centuries to come, just as the precedent of ruling over large portions of Italy and even parts of Sicily gave the succeeding Pontiffs even more claim of earthly rule. Ironically enough, however, the very practices that elevated the Papacy to the height of its temporal glory were also the ones that led to its inevitable decline as a worldly and even as a spiritual power.
Shadows Of Troy (1442-1485)
You're living in a lie
Your tears, repentance fills your eyes
Your life, is not what it seems to be
For you breed agony
Your tortured mind will cry out, take my soul
Die for me, die for my sins for I've seen
My cold and bitter end
Trapped illusions of your fate
Your end is only what you've made
Return, and taste reality again
Your sudden faith is all in vain
Your whithered voice is chanting I'm impure
Die for me, die for my sins for I've seen
My cold and bitter end
Standing at the altar, hands in prayer
Your crystal image shatters
Suffering, no one can help you now
Betrayed by your worn and tattered vows
You're living in a lie
Your tears, repentance fills your eyes
Your life stands for nothing but your shame
No one else will bear your blame
My mortal life of anguish I've endured
Die for me, die for my sins for I've seen
My cold and bitter end
As you feel the lies hypocrisy chokes the life from you
Die for me, die only for me
Sanctuary – “Die For My Sins”
The first half of the XVth century saw a spectacular rise of England from essentially a French vassal-state to a major European power on its own, forging alliances with variety of states including even the mighty Byzantine Empire, and succeeding in earning respect and admiration of even its staunchest enemies. When Henry the Lion (or Henry the Heretic, depending on whom you ask) died in 1444, the kingdom he left to his son Edward was much stronger than England has ever been in its history.
And then, Edward began to rapidly destroy all his father worked so long and hard to build. An attempt at reconciliation with the Papacy was only the first sign of what was to come; a crackdown on the University of London and on all who strayed from the Catholic dogma followed. When Edward decided to impose trade sanctions against Orthodox Novgorod and Byzantium, and to break all ties with the Muslim Granada, this was the last straw for many aristocrats and merchants whose well-being depended heavily on income brought in by trade with those nations. By 1446, it was not hard to find willing participants in the coup, and when late in the year the English Parliament declared Edward deposed and ordered his imprisonment, there were precious few the monarch could count on to maintain his rule.
As a result, what could have been a major civil war ended instead as a mere shadow of an insurrection, with the King captured within months of his deposition, and put into the great Tower of London, to be kept prisoner for the remainder of his life. More surprising, however, was the choice of his successor.
Henry left behind two sons and four daughters; of the sons, Edward was now deposed, and his brother Arthur was known to be even more fanatically Catholic than Edward. Two of Henry’s daughters were married into royal families of Europe; one was a nun. That left Anne, Henry’s third daughter, as the sole legitimate heir to the throne, or, as many in the court of England saw it, as a pathway to the throne for any noble ambitious or lucky enough to convince her to marry him. What they did not count on was Anne herself.
Despite the very idea of woman as a sole ruler being an anathema to many, the alternative was a civil war or a prospect of foreign invasion; finding a suitable husband for Anne could wait until later. The crowning of Anne I as the first Queen of England was therefore arranged for in early 1447, an unprecedented occasion, yet the one the English needed as a reprieve from tumultuous two years that preceded it.
From the very beginning, Anne proved herself to be a sovereign very much in the mold of Henry, making a quick reverse on her brother’s ill-fated policies and reestablishing alliances with Byzantium, Novgorod, and Granada within a year of her ascent. The fact that she continuously refused marriage offers from a variety of suitors that would have been thought more than suitable in other circumstances (including, not in the least amongst them, Michael VIII of Byzantium, looking to join England to his empire after an opportunity provided by the death of his first wife) was usually overlooked as trade kept English coffers full, and her renewed network of alliances kept her strong.
In this atmosphere, John Byrnes’ scholarship not only prospered, but gained a number of new converts by teaching heretical doctrines such as irrelevance of the Pope, evil of the organized Catholic Church (who had been very much responsible for the death of the people’s one-time heroine, given much credit of the England’s liberation from French and Scottish oppressors), and even claiming that it was not possible to fully belong to both spiritual and material worlds, as the former was pure, whereas the latter was impure and tainted with evil of its creation.
As Catholicism was increasingly unpopular in England, the state spent less and less effort in suppressing what could have been potential heresies; an oath of loyalty to the crown was enough in most cases, and an identity as English gradually became more important than religious identity. This brought on numerous diplomatic issues with staunchly Catholic Scotland and France, however, growing English naval might persuaded the latter that diplomatic table was far preferable to the field of battle, and battle-hardened English armies made a good argument against the former that invading under the banner of Catholicism would not only be unwanted by the English population, but also foolhardy with many wary English troops watching the border. In this atmosphere, the publication of “The Perfecti Manifesto” by John Byrnes in 1449 provided a unique and an unprecedented opportunity for his ideas to be not only accepted, but proliferated at an amazing rate amongst the literate, which by then included not only most of the nobility and merchants, but also the growing middle class and even many members of the working class.
Within weeks of the work’s publication and its subsequent spread to the homes of most literate Londoners, there had been instances of desecration of the Catholic churches and occasionally outright robbery of church property; it was not long before the book was anathemized in Italy by Pope Martin V, to whom the very ideas expressed in the book were not only the most dangerous heresy, but an outright denial of Christianity as such. The Papal threat of excommunication was, however, a futile endeavor, for in 1450 Queen Anne of England shocked the world by officially refusing to recognize Papal authority, and by proclaiming herself the head of Church of England, an independent Christian church, and the first one of a kind since the Orthodox Christianity went its own way many centuries ago. The Byzantine acceptance, grudging as it was, was soon to follow, simultaneously offering Anne to select a churchman to obtain the title of Patriarch of England, as even for Michael VIII’s sense of realpolitik and his willingness to forego religious or cultural considerations in the name of profit, the idea of having a woman as the head of the church was too much to take.
What was so threatening about Byrnes’ “Manifesto” that an entire clerical hierarchy found itself expelled, its treasury confiscated, and its previously dominant position challenged? It is easy to look at it in the hindsight of history, given that Byrnes’ ideas were relatively mild in comparison to those that led to the rise of an Unholy Empire a generation later, and speculate that Edward’s lavish spending on Church-related matters and return of much property seized during Henry’s reign was not only disastrously unpopular, but also fiscally irresponsible, resulting in severe shortages in English finances that were resolved by dealing English Catholic church a final blow from which it would never recover; it could also be said that Anne resolved to remove the last vestiges of baronial power, which had more often than not manifested itself through bishop-princes of various areas elevated to their positions during the Hundred Years’ War, and not willing to give up any of their ancient privileges.
Yet, the “Manifesto” contained a number of ideas considered quite radical for the time, blending Cathar teachings with nascent nationalism that for the first time attempted to distance the concepts of religion and nation, stating that since God was of pure spiritual world, the earthly Church could never attain purity necessary to truly communicate with Him, and as a result could wield no power over the people, which was the prerogative of secular rulers. It was, Byrnes declared, an individual’s ability to communicate with the divine, and only those willing to dedicate their entire life to deeds of asceticism and mortification were able to reach such communion; anyone actively participating in the worldly matters had to, therefore, reach communion through such ascetics and holy men, whom he called “Perfecti”, “the Perfect Ones” after the Cathar custom.
As Byrnes went on further, his tone seemed almost accusatory not only against the Papacy and its manipulation of European affairs, but also against their Habsburg allies and their so-called “Holy Roman Empire” which, he declared, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor even a true Empire as much as a collection of kingdoms all taking their orders from the servant of the devil and deceived into buying indulgences for the sins they had no way of escaping, for they were of flesh and blood, and attended to affairs of the temporal world, while the people offering forgiveness were none the better. This did little to endear this new heresy to many on the continent, however, with the English channel a secure wall against invasion on one side, and pikes, longbows, and cannon of the English army on the other, little could have been done to stop the heresy that threatened to disrupt the fabric of Western Christendom itself.
While the Queen herself did not officially declare support for the heresy, she did, however, give it an unofficial shroud of protection, favoring its adherents in civil and ecclesiastic service, and specifically forbidding to persecute Byrnes and his followers and readers. To her, it was simply an excuse to not only obtain justification for giving up much of the enforced puritanism of the late Middle Ages, but more importantly a way to permanently eradicate the influence of Catholicism and, through it, power of the Pope and of the Emperor in England. Ironically, with the propaganda campaign designed to make England’s turning away from Catholicism final and irreversible came another unlikely development.
During the middle of XVth century, England was almost certainly one of the most liberal countries in Europe, with an added advantage of being able to protect itself and even threaten its major opponents, therefore creating a safe haven for many free-thinking philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders who would have been burned at stake on the mainland. In this atmosphere, arts and sciences flourished, leaving us with many wonderful relics such as Thomas Whitford’s “O Blessed Avalon”, or Robert Byron’s great painting of Christ’s ascention from the temporal world into the world of pure spirit. Of these works, the aforementioned “O Blessed Avalon” was in particular notable for being frequently compared to Virgil’s “Aeneid” in the sense of creating a distinctly English work that praised and exalted the English nation as the descendants of the other band of Trojans fleeing their desecrated city and destined to create a great nation. Weaving in both Arthurian and Carolingian mythos along with British history and folklore, Whitford managed to create a work that even today is taught as a required curriculum in most schools. Yet, his poem did more for the English nation than it could have ever hoped to, giving the people of England pride in their country, and making it clear in no uncertain terms that England, not any other nation was the true heir of Ilium, and therefore the heir to the greatness that Rome once was.
In Rome and in Vienna, by now the primary seat of the Habsburg power, the power players of continental Europe saw red, with calls for Crusade against the apostate English lessened only by the Byzantine proclamation that England was its trusted friend and ally, and any attempt on England would be answered by an attack on Italy and Austria. Truly, this was the Empire’s darkest hour, and newly elected (or, to be more precise, newly ascendant) Maximillian II of Habsburg was not quite prepared to face the calamity brought on by this new heresy.
Finding himself in rather desperate straits as the heresy spread rampant not only in Britain, but also in northern Germany and around the Baltic, where local rulers took it as an excuse to hoard the Church property and to expel Catholic inquisitors, Maximillian knew time was short, and therefore announced in 1450 that no longer an Emperor-elect had to travel to Rome to receive crown from the Pope’s hands; instead, the title was given automatically upon one’s election, and the ceremony of coronation would be performed as a state, not a church occasion. In less of a dire situation, the Pope Martin V would have vehemently protested, however he realized that it was more valuable for him to have a legitimate Emperor at the time of crisis than to waste time trying to get one crowned while Europe appeared to be a powder keg ready to explode.
In 1451, Maximillian’s attempt to bring the Baltic League states into the Catholic fold started with a major military campaign that pressed hard into the League territory; at the same time, while initially successful in the field, the Habsburg armies proved unable to successfully besiege the League cities, thanks in no small part due to continued English and Novgorodian navies supplying their allies with ammunition and provisions. Elsewhere, calls were issued to crowned heads of Europe to pick sides in the struggle that the Catholics described in apocalyptic terms, naming Michael of Byzantium the Antichrist and Anne of England the Whore of Babylon and calling upon all good Christians to avenge the desecration of Catholicism in the lands held by the heresy.
The following three decades saw some of the most brutal and intense fighting the European continent had seen to date, and went down in history as what we now call The Sundering, the splintering of Western Christianity into the Catholic and Puritan branches, the latter named so after the claim of the English to follow the true, pure version of Christianity, uncorrupted by worldly matters exactly as it was intended by Our Lord and Savior. While the exact history of the Sundering War is better left to military historians, it suffices to say that by 1453 Europe was polarized into two loose factions: on the Catholic side, the Habsburg Emperor, the Papacy, and the French fought against the English, the Baltic League, Novgorod, and Byzantium.
The states of Iberia refused both sides’ offers to join, with Granada providing financial support to the English, but otherwise fearful of intervention lest the Christian Spanish states unite in their common goal of exterminating Muslim presence on the peninsula; Leon was more interested in wiping the last vestiges of Castile off the map (in which endeavor it has succeeded by 1460), whereas Aragon, normally staunchly Catholic, refused to join the Papacy, remembering how late Celestine’s greed took the prosperous island of Sicily off their hands. As Tver continued to eat away at the remnants of the once-great Golden Horde, and the Byzantines continued to encroach on the Catholic dominions in North Africa, finally taking the moribund Duchy of Mauretania as their own, another power was quickly rising to greatness in the war-torn atmosphere of Sundered Europe.
In 1457 Lithuania and Poland entered into a personal union under King Kaczimier of Poland, who inherited both crowns through his relation to deceased Lithuanian Grand Duke. In 1461, Hungary faced a succession crisis of its own, when its nobles had to choose between two candidates for the crown: the Habsburg duke Rudolph, or a native Hungarian aristocrat. When the Hungarian contender was found murdered in his bed, suspicions ran high; instead of automatically electing the Habsburg, however, the Hungarians looked north to the union of Poland-Lithuania, which was growing prosperous through its professed neutrality in the ongoing war. Thus, in 1462 the Triple Crown of Poland-Lithuania-Hungary came into being, with Kaczimier accepting the Hungarian offer and initiating series of reforms that gave rise to the modern concept of a federation, the first major one of its kind widely believed to exist after the shadow of the Sundering.
On the other fronts, the war continued unabatedly, with the Scots wisely refusing to be drawn in due to powerful English war machine on their borders, and lack of navy in the employ of the Catholic powers. At the same time, the Caliphate watched warily, reluctant to throw its lot in with the hated Catholics, but also knowing that in case the Catholic powers are utterly crushed, there would be nothing stopping Byzantium from regaining its ancient territories other than the Byzantine ambitions in Italy.
In 1464, the Byzantines launched their long-expected offensive in southern Italy and Sicily, rolling over the Catholic defenders and advancing as far north as Naples before being stalled by the desperate Papal defenders; at the same time, another Byzantine army marched through Dalmatia and towards Austria, attempting to crush the Habsburg center of operations and to eradicate this so-called “Western Empire”. While the northern Byzantine army was stalled in the First Battle of Vienna, it made enough gains to bring fear into the hearts of the German allies of the Habsburgs, resulting in a strengthening of the Baltic League through defections of various barons.
This also had a side effect of entrenching the Puritanism in the north of Germany, where many cities and principalities adopted it as a de facto state religion due to its obvious convenience and absence of need to constantly heed commands of a far-away Pope and Catholic hierarchy. In 1468, a battle fought at Lubeck in Northern Germany ended a concerned Habsburg offensive, crushing Maximillian’s army and slaughtering many of its troops. Still, despite the victories won by the Baltic League and Byzantium, neither was able to penetrate deeper into the Habsburg or Papal territories; in effect, by 1470 a stalemate of sorts was reached, favoring neither side.
While the war waged, two theaters in particular suffered its ravages more than any others. Southern Italy and Sicily, constantly changing hands between the Papal, Habsburg, and Byzantine armies, had been ravaged almost unrecognizably, with Apulia in particular being nearly depopulated by multiple campaigns fought for the control of its territory and epidemics that seemed to ravage the land unchecked. In Germany, the battles between the Habsburgs, the Baltic League troops, and the English “volunteers” led to widespread devastation that destroyed many towns and killed thousands upon thousands of people. With these alarming developments, the French began to have doubts about the usefulness of the continued conflict; despite the fact that the French involvement so far had been minimal, there was much more to gain in western Germany and Spain than elsewhere – both places currently occupied by Catholic forces. At the same time, four-way division of the Iberian peninsula created a wary stalemate between the Muslim South, skeptical East, and still staunchly Catholic, but somewhat isolated West.
In 1474 marriage between the King of Porto and Crown Princess of Leon led to effective personal union between two kingdoms, fully enacted in 1477 when the old King of Leon finally died. It would be quite some time before the resulting kingdom began to refer to itself as “Spain”, and it was not quite powerful enough to take over the entire peninsula without outside help, however, the unification of Porto and Leon brought on an important step in European history, the consolidation of many smaller states into several large ones.
While the relative outskirts of Europe were experiencing these changes, Michael VIII of Byzantium began having doubts of his own. Despite his generals’ best efforts, the Empire could not quite breach the Papal and the Habsburg defenses to extinguish these rivals to the legacy of Rome; his current gains in Apulia and Sicily, though doing much for the Imperial prestige, were somewhat worthless after the widespread devastation that occurred there. Besides, Michael was nearing seventy years of age, and was growing more and more concerned about succession.
It is said that the Emperor, curious over which of his sons would succeed him, and falling more and more under the influence of court astrologers and other charlatans that seemed to seek out the Imperial palace like flies would seek out a rotting corpse of a farm animal, left three packages in the palace hall as he invited them to a dinner, one of them containing a set of purple boots worn by the Emperors since time immemorial, the other two containing some random items, believing that the son who opens the right package would be the one destined to inherit the throne, and, thus, chosen by fate. When the dinner began, the story goes, only one of the Emperor’s sons, John arrived on time, the other two being late from the chariot races at the Hippodrome; the package he opened contained a well-embroidered sword with precious gems encrusted into the handle. While waiting on the other sons to join him, the Emperor saw his daughter Zoe walk into the hall, and absentmindedly open one of the boxes, believing it was a gift for her from her father, whose favorite she was known to be; the box contained purple boots emblazoned with golden Imperial eagles. Surprised as he was, Michael was said to have accepted it as an inevitable that his daughter would be the one to succeed him.
In 1481 the Sundering War finally came to an end, with all participants in the conflict simply too exhausted to continue fighting, prompted in large part by France’s decision to drop out of the war altogether, and a major Baltic League victory in Northern Germany. Maximillian II, an aged man by that time and thought unlikely to last long by anyone’s standards, had to concede to the Baltic League and to the English the right to profess whatever religion they wanted. Ironically, the man who fought to save the Catholic Empire ended up being the one legitimizing the removal of Catholicism from its institutions, furthering the ongoing disintegration of Empire in anything but a mere name.
Maximillian II died in 1482, a sad and broken man who only barely managed to keep the German and Austrian Habsburg Empire intact at the cost of losing one of its core principles; not long thereafter he was followed to the grave by Michael VIII of Byzantium, who was succeeded by his daughter Zoe who managed to maneuver her brothers against each other and strike against the winner; of her three brothers, initially it appeared that Nicephorus gained an upper hand, and was even able to get himself crowned, ordering execution of Demetrios and castration of John, who was packed off to a monastery – then, before Nicephorus V had a chance to reassert his rule, Zoe struck at him through a conspiracy of generals, whose leader Michael Curcuas she promised to marry and make co-Emperor. Thus hapless Nicephorus V was dethroned, charged with fratricide, and executed as his triumphant sister ascended to the Throne of Emperors as Zoe II, with her now-husband at her side as Michael IX.
From the beginning, it was clear that Zoe was determined to take lead in the affairs of the state, denying her husband actual power and responsibility; it became even more clear to the citizens of the Empire that Zoe was a surprisingly able ruler, passing laws and decrees by hundreds and overseeing the administration of the Empire with much attention. By 1485, however, cracks began to appear. Shortly after the birth of Zoe’s and Michael’s son Nicephorus, Michael IX furiously demanded that as a father of heir to the throne and as a basileus in his own right he is given seniority in the marriage and in the governance of the Empire.
What Michael IX had underestimated was the willingness of Zoe to hold on to power at any cost, and the respect with which the palace guards and most of the army held her as the only remaining legitimate descendant of David-Ergutrul who so long ago started the dynasty that brought the Empire back to zenith of its fortunes. Zoe accused her husband of attempting to kill her and their son, committing regicide in order to become the sole and undisputed ruler, and had him summarily executed by the Varangian Guards as most of Constantinople’s population was watching from the streets and rooftops. From there on and for another four decades, the Byzantine Empire was to be controlled by one of the most devious, ruthless, and brilliant rulers in its history.
Sword Of The Empire (1485-1511)
Welcome, to a
world of hate
A life of buried dreams
Smothered, by the soils of fate
Welcome, to a world of pain
Bitterness your only wealth
The sand of time kicked in your face
-Rubbed in your face
When aspirations are squashed
When life's chances are lost
When all hope is gone
When expectations are quashed
When self esteem is lost
When ambition is mourned
...All you need is hate
Carcass – “Buried Dreams”
In the aftermath of the Sundering War, Europe was at the crossroads, exposing once and for all the inability of the Holy Roman Empire to be a coherent power, and polarizing the continent into factions supporting both the Catholic loyalists and the Puritan adherents. The fact that the war did not end in a clear military victory for either side was irrelevant; the Puritans saw it as an undisputed victory, winning the right to practice their version of Christianity unmolested and breaking the Papal and Imperial power in Northern Europe once and for all. Everywhere in the lands still acknowledging suzerainty of the Western Empire, voices rose up questioning the ability of the Habsburgs to maintain its integrity and, indeed, the need for an Empire as such.
These were the challenges Albert III, the new Habsburg Emperor of the West was facing in 1485; his house’s credibility and power severely damaged (albeit not completely destroyed), and his enemies gathering strength. In desperation, Albert called for a Diet to be held in Vienna, knowing that to save his Empire, he had to make significant sacrifices and appease the barons even more. The Diet of Vienna of 1486 was therefore known as one of the lowest points of Imperial prestige in the West, resulting in the Emperor practically giving the barons complete independence in return for nominal acknowledgement of his suzerainty. While the concept of Holy Roman Empire refused to give up the ghost, for all practical purposes the Empire as a unified entity ceased to exist.
This was noted with due irony by many writers and philosophers in what was rapidly becoming a flowering of arts and sciences in England, known to us as the Renaissance. As the continental rulers competed with one another to attract philosophers, scientists, and artists to their courts in order to increase their own prestige, the popular culture experienced a shift towards more liberal thinking, and a significantly more secular society with the main exceptions being the Papal State, the Habsburg lands, and Byzantium. Over the following two decades another development began, albeit unseen by most contemporaries and gone unnoticed until its effects spiraled out of control.
With the spread of learning, it was inevitable that it would not be confined to one nation, and that talented individuals from every corner of Europe would populate the illustrious courts of its rulers. Over time, the old concepts of Christendom as one unified world where wars and disagreements were those of brothers that would still unite against all outsiders faded, to be replaced by the art and literature drawing on specific experiences of Europe’s many regions and ethnicities, creating vague outlines of nascent nationalism. No longer an identity as a Christian was an all-consuming veil on the top of cultural and ethnic multitudes populating the continent; people took pride in the differences that separated their nation – not their king, or duke, or other ruler, but the things that made them English, French, or German, Greek, Italian, or Russian, Aragonese or Spanish, Scottish or Irish.
Ironically, the era of great European empires was dealt its first blow not by the sword of a conqueror, but by the artist’s brush, or by the poet’s pen, dividing the past and the future and reimagining the world in never before seen colors. It would be years before any visible effects of Renaissance other than many ornate frescos, elaborate buildings, and delicate statues would be seen – however when the idea of belonging to a nation rather than to a city or to a faith became paramount, there was no turning back.
While Albert III attempted to reorganize whatever was left of his Empire and to bring new vitality to it, his Eastern counterpart Zoe had some plans of her own. Entrusting her only surviving brother John, a eunuch debarred from the throne, with command of the armies, she was now ready to realize her dream of restoring the true Roman Empire at its height and banishing the memory of German usurpers along with their so-called Empire from the history books. True, her Empire occupied its greatest territorial extent since the fateful events of the Arab invasion, and was technologically, economically, and militarily near the absolute zenith of its fortuned, but this was not enough. To Zoe II, the war-torn Europe presented an opportunity that might not repeat itself, a chance to reestablish Roman Empire in its ancient borders and to make the barbarians kneel to the rightful Emperor (or, as the case would be here, Empress).
Her first target was the Caliphate, weakened by civil war over disputed succession and unable to present any meaningful opposition. Using a minor pretext of Christian pilgrims being harassed in the Caliphate territory, in 1487 Zoe ordered John to invade Egypt and to take it in the name of the Roman Empire. The Egyptian campaign was over quickly, with the Byzantines skillfully playing various pretenders to the title of Caliph against each other, promising them assistance but in the end accepting only servitude; by 1489 Egypt was once again a Byzantine province – albeit with an Arab governor, and generally much more tolerant of non-Christians than any other province in Byzantium. The rest of Arab North Africa fell within several years just as another Byzantine army took Palestine and Lebanon from the moribund Caliphate. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Caliph attempted to rally the Muslims into a holy war, a Jihad against the Byzantines, however, after his armies were smashed near Edessa, he was forced to quickly sue for peace, retaining his possessions in Persia and near Baghdad, but forced to abandon most of Syria, North Africa, and Palestine for good. While a low-intensity guerilla war continued in Palestine for the remainder of Zoe’s reign, and beyond, resulting in eventual reversal of Byzantine control in the territories conquered, by 1492 the Byzantines essentially restored most of Justinian’s empire from almost a thousand years before.
The effects of Byzantine conquests were felt in the West, too. As crusading spirit of long ago gave way to commerce and diplomacy, most Western rulers saw the Caliphate as not only a useful trading partner, but as a check on the Byzantine power in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the Caliphate severely beaten, and its Mediterranean territories now in Byzantine possession, many began to ask themselves what is next on Zoe’s agenda. Still, despite frequent calls to arms, very few European rulers were prepared to commit to another war of magnitude promising to eclipse even that of the Sundering War, still a fresh memory in Germany and Italy.
What was worse yet was Europe’s utter dependency on Byzantium for any goods traded from India and China. Ever since the Mongol Empire’s disintegration into a number of splinter kingdoms that were being reduced even further by the Kievans, Tverians, and each other seemingly every passing day, the steppe route passing through Siberia was no longer a viable alternative, and with the Byzantines controlling routes to the Caliphate’s territory, it was no longer possible to bypass Constantinople altogether and to obtain goods from the East in Alexandria or another city not under Byzantine control.
There was another powerful factor at play in the West. The long rivalry between the English and the French was just entering into a whole new phase with the unification of Ireland under Dohmnall of Leinster, and a creation of unified Irish state. As their neighbors watched on the sidelines with caution, attempting to determine what course this new Kingdom of Ireland would take, it was a natural step for the staunchly Catholic Irish to ally themselves with Scotland and France, frustrating the English who thought the area near their home island relatively secure from foreign ambitions.
By now Queen Anne was long in the grave, and the throne was occupied by her great-nephew Charles, whose relative mediocrity in most areas was somewhat compensated by the ever-increasing power of the Parliament, which was effectively ruling the country with the King as a figurehead of sorts. The English pride was hurt; the sphere of English influence suddenly limited in the West. Soon, many voices were calling for strengthening of the navy should a French-sponsored or Irish invasion ever come.
England’s naval power was already quite considerable, and with the development of ocean-going ships, the English trade blossomed in the Baltic Sea and along Europe’s Atlantic coast; the increasingly centralizing French kingdom had to come up with an antidote for seemingly impenetrable “wooden walls of Britain” in case the relations between the two soured enough for a war. In 1493, Louis XIV of France ordered construction of new French navy, copying many of the designs on the English ocean-going warships.
This naval buildup did not go unnoticed in the Baltic, where Denmark and Sweden recently attained a personal union (albeit being de facto separate countries united only in person of the monarch), and where relatively poor, but ambitious united Norway began to look for a direction to expand. A chain reaction of sorts followed, imploring most of the Baltic powers to begin a race to attain naval parity. Old alliances shattered; new were slow to follow in the atmosphere of general suspicion that reigned in the Baltic region.
On the Ukrainian steppes, Kiev finally contained the Giray Khanate to northern half of Crimea, whereas the southern coast of the peninsula was retaken by the Byzantines. Kievan ambitions to expand towards the Kouban region and the Caucasus, however, were set back by a military defeat at the hands of the Khanate of Astrakhan in 1497. Despite the victory, Astrakhan still could not overcome the growing power of Tverian Russia, now expanding towards the steppes and closer to the Ural Mountains, absorbing the Kazan Khanate and forcing Astrakhan to pay yearly tribute, in effect acknowledging vassalage.
Amidst these happenings, Zoe II of the Byzantine Empire decided the time was right for an offensive to retake the West. Handing the military command once again to her brother John, now affectionately known in Constantinople as “Sword Of The Empire”, she began plotting towards an assault on the heart of Habsburg power – Vienna itself.
In 1499, Byzantine armies were on the move as Albert III desperately attempted to muster sufficient forces to repel it. Here the earlier Diet of Vienna came back to plague him, as the barons felt little obligation to come to their theoretical suzerain’s assistance – not if they were constantly supplied with the Byzantine money and assurances that they will retain their lands and will even increase their power at the expense of their uncooperative brethren.
In 1500, the Byzantines were within miles of Vienna. The siege that followed was remembered since that day as one of the most important battles that charted the course of Western civilization; for over a year invaders’ cannons battered the desperate defenders while many a tale of heroism and selflessness was borne out of the Germans’ exploits. By January 1501, the winter caused such horrific attrition to both sides that the Viennese were forced to send severely wounded soldiers back into the fray to hold off the Byzantines, who were by then reduced to eating flesh of the dead to stay alive when their supply lines were frequently disrupted by German guerilla fighters.
Spring 1501 came, and it was not a moment too soon. The saying goes that by April 1501 John, the Byzantine commander, was so discouraged with the siege and pessimistic about its prospects that he considered abandoning it and returning home; he had decided upon giving the order when a word came to him that a Viennese captive told of a secret passage into the city that would allow a group of Byzantine soldiers to sneak in. Encouraged by such a turn of events, John gathered a brigade of volunteers on what would essentially be the suicide mission; under the cover of the night the Byzantines managed to infiltrate the city and set explosives to Vienna’s gunpowder and munitions warehouses arsenal, and food storage as the city gates were open from within.
Whether or not there is any truth to the story, which was never confirmed by John himself and which was first told by Dyonisios Stratos a century after the events described, Vienna fell to a depleted and starving Byzantine army in May 1501, however, the fall of the Habsburg capital failed to make Albert consider surrender. After all, he reasoned, the Byzantines suffered horrendous losses, whereas the stand at Vienna allowed Albert to gather a sizeable army, assisted by mercenaries from every corner of Europe. Just as reinforcements started to pour into Vienna, another event drastically shifted the course of the war.
At the Battle of Gaeta near Naples, Italian army, made up of Papal forces, mercenaries, and troops from various Italian city-states, completely annihilated Byzantine invasion force. Suddenly, the situation in Italy, long thought of as a relatively easy conquest in Constantinople, and not given more than a second’s thought, appeared spiraling out of control. Something had to be done quickly before Byzantine Italy collapsed completely.
Believing that the fall of Vienna will bring the Habsburg Emperor to surrender, Zoe immediately ordered reluctant John to take command of Byzantine forces in Italy, and attempt to restore their shattered morale and combat capability. Thus, fresh from what appeared to be a crushing victory against the Habsburgs, John was forced to let the spoils of his Austrian campaign lay in a precarious position while he attempted to reinforce the area that he considered of lesser strategic importance while diminishing his forces on the front lines to be barely able to hold their recent conquests.
Between 1501 and 1503, Byzantines under John managed to regain complete control of Apulia and to capture Naples, effectively reversing the Italian victory at Gaeta. Further north, however, things looked bleak for the Eastern Empire. John’s replacements were much less capable than their predecessor, and suffered series of setbacks, resulting in Byzantines being pushed out of Austria almost completely with an unenthusiastic garrison barely holding on to Vienna. Despite numerous requests from John to be transferred to the Austrian front, Zoe held her ground in demanding that he subdue Italy first; she reasoned that for Roman Empire, controlling Rome was more important than crushing a rival so-called Emperor.
The later scholars speculated that usually strong-willed and single-minded Zoe fell under the influence of the Patriarch Bartholomeos, to whose company she increasingly turned after the untimely death of her long-time lover Peter Zautses; at any rate, it is clear that her actions between 1501 and 1504 were hardly rational, and were in large part to blame for the events that would unfold not long after her death, and that would bring ruin to most conquests made during her reign. Indeed, a number of courtiers observed definite changes to Zoe’s character, including sudden and somewhat morbid interest in religion, cessation of extravagant entertainment the Empress was previously known to enjoy, and unusual amount of time spent in prayer and repentance, interrupted only by obsessive paranoia and short yet violent purges that removed many aristocrat or cleric from their office and sent them to their untimely deaths.
The most prominent victim of the purges was the great general John, Sword Of The Empire himself. Accused of treason and of plotting behind Zoe’s back to remove her from power, John was stripped of office and executed in front of his troops, striking a heavy blow to the Byzantine morale in Italy.
Accordingly to the memoirs of an officer stationed with John’s Italian army, his execution was due to a plot by several lesser officers who agreed to testify against him after their incompetence incurred the general’s wrath, resulting in them being relieved of commanding rank. Rather than face likely death in the ranks of common infantry, said officers came forward with allegations against their commander, claiming that their discharge was due to them discovering John’s plans to dethrone Zoe and establish him as an effective ruler with then-eighteen year old future Nicephorus VI, already reported to be consumptive and somewhat easily led, as a figurehead monarch. That John almost certainly had no such inclinations did little to save him.
In 1504, however, old Patriarch Bartholomeos was dead, and with his successor sixteen year old Constantine, rumored to be the Empress’ illegitimate son with Peter Zautses being less of an imposing figure, Zoe took upon the business of government again with her usual zeal. John’s successors in Italy fared no better than their counterparts in Austria; by 1506 the Byzantines were practically pushed back to their own territory by the Habsburg army, which recaptured Vienna in 1505. Facing defeat of her ambitions, Zoe reluctantly sued for peace, knowing that the momentum was lost, and that without generals of John’s caliber, further fighting would be a waste of time and resources.
With Central Europe, the Balkans, and Italy in the state of almost complete chaos, trade between Europe and Asia ceased almost to a halt, the main trade route being the primary battleground on which the Eastern and the Western Empires resolved their differences. This served just fine to Kiev, Tver, and Novgorod, all of which began charging ridiculous tariffs in order to enrich themselves as the only route to the East. Needless to say, it did little to endear the Orthodox Russian states to Western European merchants, whose voices became louder and louder in many courts. When a young merchant ship captain George Smith asked King Edward of England to sponsor an expedition to find a maritime route to China and India, there were many who threw their financial lot in with Smith.
Although the king himself decided not to back the expedition, a number of wealthy merchants lent Smith money to outfit his ship, “The Excalibur” with all it needed for such a long and perilous journey in return for lion’s share of profits of Smith’s acquisitions in the East, should he be ultimately successful. As the story goes, Smith and his crew decided to sail on south, attempting to find a southern passage past Africa to arrive to India, bypassing Byzantium and its wars of conquest altogether. In 1508, “The Excalibur” reached the southern-most tip of South Africa before returning home.
While Smith’s supplies were insufficient to journey further East, it was now proven that there was indeed a way to ignore the powers that controlled the old Silk Road. Smith’s second expedition sailed on in 1509, this time with three ships loaded to the gunwales with supplies, ammunition, and food.
While the English attempted to circle Africa, the French began to have similar ideas. While in general France was rather self-sufficient, it could not afford to let England obtain an economic advantage in terms of wealth that country could obtain via this kind of explorations. Hence, in 1510 the French king ordered another expedition to be outfitted. This time, however, instead of sailing south, the ships under command of Louis Philippe de Crecy would sail west, believing in a theory that the world might indeed be round, and an easier and faster passage to China and India could be found.
The story of de Crecy’s explorations is better told elsewhere, but it suffices to say that in 1511, the expedition discovered a number of islands that de Crecy named Philippia, after King Philip on whose orders the expedition was sent. Over the next decade, more explorers found the mainland, which was quickly claimed in the name of France, while England and eventually Spain joined in, all attempting to claim lands of their own. The age of colonization of the new continent, henceforth dubbed Avalon (and later, when second continent was discovered further to the south, named North Avalon, with its southern counterpart obtaining the Southern Avalon moniker) has begun.
Peace was signed between the Byzantines and the Habsburgs in 1509 on terms that were rather humiliating to the proud Eastern Empire. Zoe II would have fought on to the bitter end, however, by 1508 she was dead, having previously ensured the succession of her son Nicephorus via finally creating legal structure for Imperial succession, passing the Succession laws a year before her death. Nicephorus VI, a pleasure-loving youth with little interest in politics, warfare, or administration was only too happy to submit to “suggestions” of his advisers to yield Byzantine Italy save for Bari and to pay enormous reparations to Albert III, whose star was now ascendant in the West.
On the scene of grandiose deeds, proud monarchs, and injured ambitions developments in Northern Germany went almost completely unnoticed at the time. There, in a divided city of Hanover where Puritans and Catholics clashed almost daily, a charismatic young Puritan priest named Johann von Klause formulated a further development to the doctrine of Puritanism as espoused by John Byrnes decades ago. Not only was material world imperfect – indeed, it was evil, von Klause wrote, and nothing of the world could pretend on the title of being “Holy”, which was the prerogative of heaven, and heaven only. Even the most frugal of the adepts, the only pathway between this world and the next, were but a bridge between them.
If this world was evil in itself, with or without design of its inhabitants, von Klause thought, then surely there must not be a benevolent God watching over it. Instead, he preached to his followers of the God that left some time after creating the world, and of Satan that assumed God’s face and God’s powers to twist the unholy world to do his bidding.
Indeed, if the evils written about in histories were not proof enough of the fundamentally evil nature of this earthly existence, how would two of the most devastating wars Europe had known to date happening only within decades of each other not prove it? Were the Byzantine conquests not equally driven by Satanic lust for power and greed with the Habsburg and Papal attempts to control all of Christendom? Indeed, if Catholic and even Puritan Christianity led to this evil, would it not prove simply that Jesus of the Catholic Bible was a failure, the last gasp of Old Testament’s God before letting Jesus’ imperfect and all-too-human disciples preach a twisted and heretical version of his teachings while at the same time establishing the Catholic Church, the epitome of worldly evil?
It is understandable that even relatively liberal Puritans were outraged by such teachings, resulting in von Klause being forced into exile from Hanover. However, his persecutors underestimated their opponent; not only was von Klause able to attract more of the landless nobles, impoverished peasants, discouraged ex-soldiers returning from the East, and priests losing faith over splendor of the Catholic church hiding most base debauchery, prospering and getting wealthier while the common man and even noble was left under the crushing heel of the Habsburg taxation and in the vice grips of ongoing war, but he also furthered his own doctrines.
Having dealt with the question of material world as evil versus the spiritual world as the only place where goodness was possible, von Klause began to be heavily influenced by nascent German nationalism. Seeing the increased decentralization of Holy Roman Empire and its eventual dissolution in all but a name, he pondered the failings of the Empire itself to maintain a coherent state of Germany, and came to the conclusion that Catholicism was to blame. Had the Papacy not attempted to rule Christendom by swords and guns of its supporters, he concluded, Germany would have been spared the misery of continuous civil strife, and would have been one just like its Eastern counterpart, the Greek Byzantine Empire.
Yet just like the Catholics the Orthodox Byzantines followed teachings of the same saints and Patriarchs, and grew out of the same Roman Empire that served Satan so well by executing Christ and by adopting a twisted version of his teachings. Truly, the “Holy” Empire, a claim made by both West and, informally, the devoutly Orthodox East, was not of Heaven, and a claim to such was the worst heresy of all, a non-adept claiming pathway to the Transcendent Kingdom while knowingly leading the masses towards eternal damnation.
Yet, von Klause believed, there was a purpose of the Empire’s being. Just like an adept is the only source of salvation for laymen, the one nation, the German nation could show the rest of the world the one true way that differed from the Puritan Christianity as much as Puritanism itself differed from Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The only way such nation would come about would be through unification of German states into more than a nominal union, but into an Empire that the likes of the Habsburgs with their supposed “Holy” mandate could never forge.
Yes, the world was unholy, wrote von Klause, and anything of the world was justly so as well. Yet, since the last true Holy intervention of the divine ended up in failure, and holiness itself was usurped by Satan and its tools, the very word itself was now the symbol for evil, for corruption, greed and desire for power. Only the Perfect, the adepts willing to give up pleasures of body and mind and to sacrifice their earthly lives for heavenly reward were the last gift from God to the world, the last chance of salvation to its inhabitants, protected by the swords and walls of their laity who could now live earthly life without fear or regrets of sin, for all believers’ sin would be washed away through the endless prayer of the Perfect Ones.
For the holy world, a Holy Roman Empire. For the unholy world…
INTERLUDE TWO – “REVELATION”
3: 22 And the LORD took me into the palm of His hand
And lo, I beheld the entire world as if in my grasp
And He asked me, what does thee behold, son of Adam?
3:26 I beheld the earth, green and blue, as if all of it before my eyes
And beheld much strife, and much suffering
Souls screaming in desperation
3:29 And I answered – LORD, why is there so much misery in the land?
Did we stray from the path You once shown us
To be punished with such avarice and disunity?
3:32 And the LORD said, my child,
These are the men who chose to follow the Adversary,
And who invited him into their midst
3:35 Their flock has been deflowered, their pastures spoiled
Their ways are corrupt, their souls are black
Their misery is their prayer to the Adversary
3:38 And I asked of the LORD,
Why did You abandon us in such a time of need
When the Adversary’s serpents poison the very cross on which Your only son died?
3:41 And the LORD held me in a palm of his hand
And I saw the creation of man
The first betrayal to the Adversary’s guiles
3:44 As Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden apple
And embraced the Adversary
The purity of the world has been shattered
3:47 When His only son died on the Roman cross
And his unworthy followers were led astray by the Adversary
The innocence of the world was despoiled
3:50 When servants of the Adversary in Rome took up arms
And ruined the bridge to salvation
The light of the world was dimmed
3:53 When Babylon rose from captivity
Endowing jackals with its dark wings
The world became unholy
3:56 And I asked of the LORD
What salvation could we hope for
In the arms of the Adversary?
3:59 What prayer could we have
When Your sweet grace left us
And the gates of Babylon opened?
3:62 Despair not, my child, the LORD said,
For there is yet hope for the world of men,
For the earth blue and green
3:65 For the salvation I offered thee is still not beyond thy reach
And the holy Kingdom Of Heaven could still be thine
If you heed My warning
3:68 For the select pure can still reach to Heaven
And take away mankind’s sins
For their prayers are still heard
3:71 Heed My words, faithful one
For only through thine repentance
Can mankind attain the Kingdom of Heaven
3:74 Henceforth I command thee
To take the thorned crown of My son
And to become one with the holy
3:77 For your disciples will remain
The only bridge to the Kingdom of Heaven
And the only spark of Holy Flame in the Unholy lands
3:80 And just as upon a time Rome was chosen
To bring the message of My love and forgiveness
To the children of Adam
3:83 The new worldly Rome shall rise
To defend the faithful from the Adversary
And to spread My message of true salvation
3:86 For you are of this unholy world
And of corruption of the Holy Spirit
Yet only through you Heaven still awaits
3:89 And just as there are no Gods but Me
There shall be no Empires but one
Born of the unholy world and striving spirit
Johann von Klause –“The Book Of The World, Book One, Chapter Three”,1518 CE
Prelude To The Unholy Roman Empire (1511-1525)
To be men
Given image and path
Never too late to try
Live and let die
I see the spirit
Of those ancestors
And reconsider the faith
A primitive sword
Can not win my war
Calculated verbal gun
Spiritual steel shines bright
Beyond the sun
The pride of the warrior
Is far from dead
The colors of death
Are still black and red
Blood will be shed
Emperor – “The Warriors Of Modern Death”
While Johann von Klause and his small but growing band of supporters attempted to find a permanent home in Northern Germany, the rest of Europe barely paid any notice to him and his apparent band of misfits. In the Byzantine Empire, relative incompetence of Nicephorus VI led to series of crises, the worst of which was barely subdued rebellion in Egypt. Soon a number of generals started having thoughts of rebellion, believing themselves to be much better qualified for the throne than the young, inexperienced, and lazy Emperor who inherited it only through the virtue of his birth, whereas they had proven their worth time and time again on the field of battle. By 1515 these tensions erupted into a full-scale civil war, with at least three commanders rising up in rebellion within few months of each other.
By then, Nicephorus’ lack of interest in government turned to frantic attempts to control the situation, however, it was to no avail, as Constantinople opened its gates to Strategos of Anatolia, Bardas Giannopolous, who promptly proceeded to imprison the Emperor and to crown himself Bardas I, the Emperor of the East. Nicephorus was then blinded and forced to enter the monastery, where he lingered on until 1518, dying in relative obscurity – some suggested that his death was induced in a rather involuntary manner, however, no witnesses could be found that would prove that allegation. Thus the dynasty of the Ergutruli came to a sudden and disappointing end after having ruled the Empire for over two centuries and restoring its fortunes from the very nadir to the very zenith of its glories.
Within months of Bardas’ ascent, however, hopes that the new regime would be an improvement on the old began to be dashed, as the new Emperor initiated series of brutal purges to cleanse the government of Ergutruli loyalists, coincidentally confiscating their property and lands and distributing those amongst his soldiers. By 1516, Bardas’ loyal troops were all that kept him in power; he even went as far as to completely disband the Varangian Guards, believing them to harbor sympathy for the old dynasty, and replacing them with Mongol and Arab mercenaries. Most ministers and officials who achieved prominence during the last years of the Ergutruli were charged with treason, imprisoned, and executed; the few relatively lucky ones went into voluntary exile lest they prove more fodder for the usurper’s wrath. The Patriarch Constantine, however, was surprisingly untouched by superstitious Bardas, who did not believe him to be a threat; still, the Patriarch found himself under virtual house arrest, and with little to no influence in political affairs.
In a meanwhile, the two other contenders, the Strategi of Africa and Egypt, decided to form a temporary alliance to oust Bardas, agreeing to divide the Empire amongst themselves upon victory which, they believed, would not be long in coming. The two generals, Michael Acropolites, and John Phocas, were both ambitious men, and could rarely see eye to eye on most matters, however, their mutual need precluded disagreement for now, instead forcing them to focus on their more than formidable opponent.
In Spring of 1517, the two resolved on an assault on Emperor Bardas’ Anatolian power base and, it was hoped, the capital itself, for he who controlled Constantinople would have the legitimacy the other contenders lacked. Michael Acropolites, it was agreed, would lead the fleet towards the capital, whereas John Phocas would lead the land forces through Palestine and Cilicia, confronting Bardas on the plains of Anatolia. It was hoped that the Emperor would capitulate when faced with the prospects of fighting a considerable portion of Byzantine military both on land and sea.
However, this was not to be, as the rebel fleet was smashed at Samnos, followed by the defeat of Phocas’ army when it was ambushed by the Emperor’s forces in Armenia Minor; in the aftermath, remaining rebel troops began deserting their one-time leaders, who blamed each other for the failure of their efforts and intrigued incessantly, all the while trying to obtain allegiance of the few who were still willing to follow them to the bitter end.
In July 1518, the meeting between the two rebel generals was interrupted by a throng of German mercenaries breaking into the meeting room, demanding an increase in pay lest they desert the dwindling rebel army. Sensing a trap, Acropolites attempted to flee the meeting, only to be hacked to pieces in full sight of his counterpart, who now had to contend only with the Emperor Bardas for the throne.
Still, the forces left to John Phocas were rather inadequate, amounting only to approximately twenty thousand infantry, five thousand cavalry, and several dozen cannon; the rebel navy, shattered at Samnos a year before, was in pitiful shape and not suited to oppose the still-powerful loyalist fleet. Phocas needed allies, and he needed them quickly.
From his base of operations in Egypt, Phocas surveyed the areas he could possibly draw on for military assistance. The Western Empire was too remote, and even if it was close, Albert III had no inclination for foreign adventures, having enough issues to overcome at home. The Marinids of Granada, while definitely sufficiently powerful, were out of question as well, facing renewed expansionism from both Spain and Aragon and not able to commit any troops to Phocas’ help. That left only one power to turn to – The Caliphate, still possessing significant manpower, resources, and desire to do anything in its power to reclaim its once-lost glories.
While Caliph Nasir-ad-Din was rather intrigued by Phocas’ offer of cooperation, he knew that the odds they would be facing were somewhat hard to overcome, as even without his African provinces, Bardas commanded the Imperial heartland in Anatolia and Greece, both of which were more than a match for Phocas’ forces. Besides, Nasir-ad-Din had little desire to repeat the misfortunes of his predecessors who failed to keep Egypt and North Africa mere generation ago. Still, the prospect of regaining lost provinces and a chance to deal a blow to his country’s ancient enemy was the one he could not miss.
In 1520, the deal was reached. Its terms were rather one-sided, promising the return of North Africa, Egypt, and Byzantine Syria to the Caliphate in the event of victory, and a large annual tribute. The announcement was met with much enthusiasm in Egypt and Cyrenaica, where crippling Byzantine taxation and, after Zoe’s death, numerous attempts to forcefully impose Orthodox Christianity upon predominantly Muslim inhabitants, made the Eastern Empire’s rule somewhat unpopular; in the other parts of the Empire, however, it was the vilest heresy to suggest mere abandonment of the recently reconquered territories. In light of these events, Bardas’ already nonexistent popularity with the people and the aristocracy sank to new lows, as many openly blamed him for misfortunes of the Empire, calling him new Phocas after VIIth century usurper Emperor whose cruelty and short-sightedness became proverbial. New series of purges initiated by the Emperor did little to improve his image, creating a powderkeg situation where any little spark could ignite a disaster.
As Bardas left the snake pit of Constantinople for the relative safety of field command with his army, the Patriarch Constantine began plotting against the Emperor, finding much support in the old Imperial aristocracy who were less than impressed with parvenu Bardas, and whose loyalties frequently lay with the old regime of the Ergutruli. While Constantine himself was a eunuch, unable to take the throne, he had a perfect candidate in mind to replace Bardas – one Alexius Zautses, the only legitimate son of Peter, late Zoe’s companion and Constantine’s father. The only problem was the removal of the usurper, whose hold on the army made the task nigh impossible as long as he was undefeated.
While the plotters in Constantinople attempted to find a way to depose the hated Emperor without incurring the wrath of the army, it appeared that the events practically resolved themselves in their favor. On July 19, 1521, the Imperial army fell into ambush not far from Tarsus in Cilicia, and was all but annihilated, the Emperor himself one of the victims. It is somewhat hard to believe that Bardas, by all accounts a competent, if unspectacular general, would be easily led into a trap such as one set by Phocas and his Caliphate allies, and recent scholarship did unveil some hints that the rebels might have acted on intelligence provided from Constantinople to surprise the Emperor at the most inopportune moment – yet the truth is likely to remain a mystery, as there are no direct statements found in contemporary sources to support it, only hints and guesses, none of which could be considered definite proof.
The news of disaster were met with surprising amount of joy in Constantinople, its citizens glad to be rid of tyrannical and cruel Emperor, obscuring the fact that now there was an invading army marching through Armenia Minor and Anatolia towards the capital itself. The Patriarch Constantine, however, was all too aware of the fact that the victory would ultimately prove hollow unless the invaders could be turned back, or at the very least bought off. Expecting to play on John Phocas’ Imperial ambitions for his advantage, Constantine persuaded the Senate not to name a successor to Bardas in hopes that Phocas might hope for recognition and let down his guard.
However, the events once again moved much faster than Constantine had anticipated. In September 1521 John Phocas was murdered by an officer whose wife he had an affair with; the remains of the rebel Greek army dispersed shortly thereafter, leaderless and fearing that the Caliphate troops may turn on them. In an instant, the Patriarch’s hopes for peaceful resolution of the conflict were dealt a crushing blow; now there was no choice but to fight.
It was in the hopes of many Byzantines that Alexius IX Zautses was to bring prosperity, peace, and renewed glory to the Empire when he received the Imperial crown from the hands of the Patriarch in Hagia Sophia, packed with spectators, guards, and foreign dignitaries of seemingly every nation in the known world. Over the course of the next ten years, however, these hopes would be dashed time after time as the new Emperor had proven to be a weak-willed, easily led figurehead whose policy was characterized by alternatively long periods of indecision and rapid reversals of previous policies, being influenced by whomever happened to have his ear at the moment.
While the Emperor’s generals frantically attempted to raise another army to stall the Caliphate’s advance, Caliph’s ambassadors arrived to Constantinople, warning that the only condition of peace would be the unconditional return of Zoe’s North African conquests lest the Arab army lays waste to the greater portion of Anatolia and lays siege to the capital itself. Such insolence, in Alexius’ (or, to be more precise, in the Patriarch’s) eyes could not go unpunished; the ambassadors were summarily executed in a rather painful and prolonged manner, leaving only one maimed diplomat alive to relay the message back to his master.
Although torturing and executing Arab ambassadors won the new Emperor some popularity points with the capital’s citizens, in light of the events that followed it is apparent that this course of action was at the very least ill-advised, and only infuriated the Caliph Nasir-ad-Din, whose armies rolled over the local garrisons until in 1522, Tyana in Cappadocia became a scene of the battle that determined the outcome of the war. Newly assembled Byzantine army of approximately 60,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry, and a fair number of field artillery under command of strategos David Athenikos was rushed into attack against the Caliphate army of approximately 100,000 men under the Emperor’s orders, despite the strategos’ insistence that the army was not quite ready for battle and was in the location where it could not be readily resupplied.
At the brink of dawn of May 14, the Byzantines assaulted the Arab lines, initially being successful in routing a number of Caliphate regiments in a heavy cavalry charge, brushing the lighter Arab cavalry aside as the Byzantine cannon wreaked havoc on their adversaries. Alas, the bulk of Caliphate regiments held, its infantry steadily holding ground in face of Byzantine assaults until the night fell. Realizing that Byzantine advantage in field artillery neutralized his own numeric superiority, the Caliphate commander ordered a daring night-time raid against the Byzantine supply wagons; the few Byzantine guards were quickly overpowered, and while the raid had proven to be a de facto suicide mission, with only a few Arab soldiers escaping with their lives, it succeeded in setting fire to main Byzantine gunpowder stores, effectively crippling their ability to use cannon and hand weapons, and forcing David Athenikos to rely mostly on hand-to-hand fighting skill of his troops.
On May 15, the field of Tyana was soaked in blood as desperate Byzantine cavalry charges failed to dislodge the Arabs from their fortified positions; with gunpowder supplies heavily rationed, the artillery barrage ceased almost completely. The death toll in the ranks of Byzantine klibanophorii was horrendous, as even though the Arabs paid dearly for taking down each of the heavily armored cavalrymen, the Caliphate’s numerical advantage allowed it to take such a gamble; the Byzantines, on the other hand, could not afford to lose many more of their best troops, knowing that most of their infantry had been only recently recruited and not fully trained, being hastily assembled from the provinces.
By noon it was clear to the Byzantine strategos that the Arab position was impenetrable, and he ordered a general retreat while he could still save majority of his army. The chronicles of the time vary wildly on the exact estimates of casualties suffered on both sides; however, even a conservative estimate implies that out of 75,000 Byzantines at Tyana, no more than 50,000 limped back towards Smyrna and Constantinople. The Arab casualties are not precisely known, partially due to the Caliph’s desire to hide the true strength of his army in order to negotiate from apparent position of strength – however, it is highly likely that they equaled, or even eclipsed the Byzantine fatality count, allowing the Caliph to claim a victory only because of his army’s significant numerical superiority.
It is one of history’s great ironies that a battle which was, in hindsight, essentially a draw was seen as a disastrous defeat in Constantinople, a calamity of proportions compared to Manzikert or Cannae of ages past. Had Alexius IX and his advisors been able to see that despite severe casualties David Athenikos managed to preserve the core of the army in somewhat of a fighting condition, or had they understood that despite retaining the field of battle, the Caliphate was in no condition to advance any further despite the Caliph’s boasts to the contrary, the outcome of the war and, indeed, the history of North Africa would have been vastly different; however, blinded with fear and succumbing to the worst of panic, the Emperor instead blamed his strategos for the defeat, rashly ordering his imprisonment and execution upon the latter’s arrival to the capital.
If the Emperor’s orders to his strategos to attack the Arab army despite the strategos’ own best judgement had been a decision he would at least privately regret in first place, the consequences thereof had been that much worse, for having discovered through friends in the capital what the Emperor had in store for him, David Athenikos decided that the best defense was to claim the Imperial purple for himself, and had himself promptly proclaimed basileus by his troops. Further panicked, Alexius IX offered surrender of already occupied territories to the Caliph along with North African provinces the latter requested in return for crushing the latest pretender to his throne.
To Nasir-ad-Din, this was beyond anything he could have hoped to win from the conflict; at first, it was said that he believed the offer to be a Byzantine ruse of some kind until his spies in Constantinople confirmed his wildest suspicions. Therefore, the Caliph cheerfully agreed, and ordered his troops to follow the rebel Byzantine army, pillaging as they went and weakening Byzantium even further. It was not until 1524 that the rebel general was finally defeated through treachery of a subordinate commander; by then, much of Byzantine Anatolia lay depopulated and ravaged by years of warfare. If Alexius IX thought that his troubles were over, he was far from being right, for at this time, events in the West demanded his attention, and spelled to bring even more misery to his already faltering regime.
In 1517, Johann von Klause finally found a permanent home for himself and his more devout followers in a small principality of Mainz, where one Ulrich von Wittelsbach had recently come to power as a Prince-Elector in what essentially was a coup against the Archbishop of the city, previously acting as its secular ruler. The new Prince needed every bit of legitimacy he could obtain – not to mention an excuse to plunder the wealth of the Archbishopric in order to bribe his neighbors into leaving him well alone to rule his new state; his professed conversion to Puritanism was, in light of the events surrounding his ascent to the throne, a convenient motive to do so. Ulrich’s relation to the powerful Wittelsbach family, the Princes of Bavaria since the time predating the Third Crusade spared him from wrath of ailing Albert III, who could not afford to alienate one of his most powerful allies in fear that the Empire falls into another civil war so soon after beating back the Byzantine invasion.
Few words should be spared on the character of Ulrich von Wittelsbach, which will be featured prominently in our story. Born in 1485 a third son of Otto von Wittelsbach, the Prince of Bavaria, he was rather far down the succession order, and therefore decided to ply his trade as a leader of mercenary company, using his family’s connections to get out of trouble whenever things got too difficult for him to handle. By 1510, after a number of rather spectacular successes in inter-baronial wars in central Germany, he began entertaining hopes of a principality of his own, seeing from his own experience that mounting a throne somewhere would only take little money, little luck, some troops, and sufficient skill – all of which he believed himself to possess in plentiful qualities.
It was said by later biographers that Ulrich’s most prominent trait was his ambitiousness and willingness to take chances his more cautious would not have even considered; although later in his life he often presented himself as a true believer, and was even able to successfully convince the masses of such, the portrait latter day historians conjure is that of an opportunist, a gifted military leader with sufficient knack for political intrigue and an almost unnatural ability to sense the winds of change and to take the best advantage of them. It is to him that the rise of the Unholy Empire owes just as much as it does to the ideology created by Johann von Klause.
“The Book Of The World”, von Klause’s single greatest achievement, was published in Mainz in 1518. In a pseudo-Biblical language, von Klause implied in no uncertain terms that mere denial of Catholicism as the worldly, unholy religion was insufficient – nothing short of its complete destruction would suffice to remove its blemish from the face of the world; though devoid of holiness, the Sword of True Faith would rip through the carcass of the Adversary’s structure and abominations that were his minions. Only then, he wrote, the one true Empire could be built, chosen by the Lord himself as his earthly weapon, the tool of matter guided by the hand of spirit.
Furthermore, he spoke of unification of Germany as its people were now the ones chosen to receive the divine revelation, and to stand as one against the Adversary’s allures; there will be, he believed, a prince chosen by the Lord to unify his people into one, and to lead them to the restoration of Rome that should have been, the Empire of this world. As von Klause continued, he implicitly blamed Catholicism and the machinations of the Pope and his loyal Habsburg servants for his people’s misery, for their division – the Catholics’ lust for the worldly power prevented those that failed in unifying Germany and led to such misery that it was undoubtedly of the Adversary.
Doctrinal subtleties aside, von Klause’s message of extreme nationalism sent a powerful shock throughout the German states. The death of Albert III just weeks before the publication of the book only added to the political and social chaos. Previously, the electors of various German states put their figurative stamp to enthronement of the next in Habsburg line for the Emperorship; this time, many voices arose in dissent over the predetermination of this so-called “election”.
Although the Habsburgs presided over the great victory over the “Eastern heretics” only a short time ago, many remembered that they had also presided over some of the Empire’s most spectacular failures; even now, warfare between petty German princedoms over things of minute nature threatened to tear even this marginal Empire apart, while to the East, undoubtedly, once a strong Emperor rose up to the challenge, the Byzantines would surely look to the West for regaining the lands they had long considered theirs. Worse yet, the Baltic League, still German in language and origin, had practically left the Empire in all but a name, choosing to throw their lot in with the foreigners rather than suffer centuries-long grip the Habsburgs and the Papacy held on the Holy Roman Empire.
The Catholic princes tried in vain to suppress the spread of von Klause’s work; even if the average citizen did not understand the theological subtleties of his marriage of Catharism, Puritanism, and, it was said, some of the more extreme aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy with German nationalism holding it together as if it were glue, they did understand the message that there was to be one Germany, one great Reich without the Papal greed and lust for power to dictate it his will.
More so, from Augustus to Constantine, from Constantine to Charlemagne, from Charlemagne to Barbarossa and his successors, the idea of one worldly Empire lived on – and when the Lord withdrew His blessing from the heretical Greeks and the decadent Latins, it was Germany where Rome lived on, and where it shall rise again as the One Empire to rule them all. All over the Empire, memories of the Hohenstaufens of old were unearthed, their time being remembered with reverence as the Golden Age when the Empire was a unified power in the West, and nothing seemed to be able to stand against its inevitable tide as Emperor after Emperor brought in spectacular successes.
Against this, Charles VI of Habsburg declared himself Emperor in defiance of Imperial electors and had his claim seconded by the Pope who offered recognition to the man he hoped would be Catholicism’s new champion. After all, Charles did not necessarily oppose to the idea of united Germany; indeed, in what could very well have been one of history’s greatest ironies, the very Imperial subjects that now called for united Germany were the ones who felt so threatened by the Hohenstaufens’ ambitions to rule a united Empire that they elevated the Habsburgs to the Imperial throne in return for leaving their own private domains unmolested; for Charles, there was nothing wrong with uniting the German states under one banner – that is, as long as this banner was his.
At this stage, however, even his promises to maintain the Empire as a singular entity, by the force of arms if necessary, fell upon deaf ears. Accepting the rule of Habsburg meant accepting the primacy of the Pope, and ultimately return to the old days of division and manipulation from distant Vatican. It was not to be, not again.
Historians argue if Ulrich von Wittensbach had in any way engineered the rise of popular sentiment throughout German states, or if he was merely the right man at the right place at the right time; it is, however, undeniable that when he issued an ultimatum to the Archbishop of Trier to surrender the city in 1520, he had done so in the name of the new strain of Puritan faith, hence known as Johannism – not only due to the first name of its ideologue, but also due to frequent allegories made by von Klause to the Book of Revelation of Saint John the Apostle regarding the end of times, and vehement comparisons between the Catholic Church and various facets of the Beast. That von Klause died in 1519 of what was widely suspected to be an assassin’s dagger only served to elevate him to martyrdom, and to further his cause even further. Moreover, the electors of the Empire gathered in Mainz, and declared Charles’ coronation null and void, and that the Imperial throne itself was as good as vacant, the Habsburgs no longer able to legitimately occupy it.
With the Eastern Empire suffering a crisis of its own and unable to act in defiance of his plans, Charles VI of Habsburg knew that if he fails to act now, there would be next to no chance of regaining control of the situation later; in late 1520 sent an army of 20,000 men under command of Heinrich von Braun against Ulrich von Wittelsbach, believing that a decisive victory here could go a long way towards proving the futility of struggle to the German princes and their subjects. Hearing of that, Ulrich retreated with his main host towards the newly taken city of Trier, where he took to fortifying his position against the coming assault. Messengers were sent to Ulrich’s new allies – the Puritan princes of Northern and Central Germany who were by now one by one standing by the Johannist doctrine.
Still, it would take some time before the reinforcements could arrive; for now, the Johannist army barely numbered over five thousand soldiers. Believing his victory to be a given, von Braun divided his forces into two, ordering one to maintain pressure on Trier’s eastern side whereas the other was to cross the river Mosel under the cover of the night near a small settlement called Zewen, and set up cannon batteries on the other bank of the river opposing the area where Trier’s fortifications were at their weakest. While this plan was tactically sound and, given von Braun’s numerical and artillery superiority, would have ensured success in the battle for Trier under different circumstances, he did not account for a major thunderstorm that occurred on the night of the crossing. In flashes of lightning, the defenders clearly saw the movement of the Habsburg troops to cross the river, and to assault their beloved city from both sides.
Later Johannist theologicians would claim this fortunate occurrence to be a sign from the Lord; in Trier, Ulrich von Wittelsbach hatched a quick plan. The Crossing of the Mosel was thereon known as the beginning of the end of the Habsburg hegemony, as Johannist soldiers used the element of surprise to its fullest extent, slaughtering unsuspecting Habsburg troops once they began the crossing, and capturing much of the Habsburg artillery that made it to Mosel’s west bank, quickly turning it towards von Braun’s positions to make sure that he could not retake it with a quick assault.
In a matter of moments, the Habsburg army was effectively cut down to half the size, with a major part of its artillery now used against it. Although von Braun still enjoyed numerical superiority, the destruction of half of his army at the crossing demoralized his men to an extent that some of them refused to take up weapons against the Johannist, while some others simply deserted to the city, where Ulrich von Wittelsbach promised Catholic Church’s treasures to those who follow him in its overthrow and in the creation of the new Empire out of the ashes of the old.
Heinrich von Braun was a competent general, tested many times in the war against the Byzantines where he held the distinction of retaking Vienna; he knew both the sweet taste of victory and bitter stench of defeat, yet never was he in a situation where his own troops whose loyalty was all he depended on gave up on the Catholic and Habsburg cause to openly side with the enemy. Rather than return to Vienna in disgrace and report the news of defeat to his Emperor, von Braun committed suicide on November 14, 1520.
From a purely military standpoint, the Crossing of Mosel was a relatively minor engagement, as it had neither destroyed the Habsburg power to fight, nor had it given the Johannists an insurmountable advantage. From the morale standpoint, however, few victories in European history could be said to have this kind of an effect. All of the various grassroots movements towards German unification finally found a focal point on which to center their hopes; few of the feudal princes hoped to go against this tide, knowing that the only alternative to joining the Johannists would be to join the Habsburg camp, which, for the largely Puritan north was out of question.
In 1521, the crisis in which German lands found themselves worsened. It was clear to many in the northern and central Germany that the Habsburgs had to be removed; but where would it go from there? As much as the idea of unified Germany held appeal to both the people and the nobles, the ruling princes had little stomach for relinquishing their sovereignty to a strong central ruler; this was the reason they had risen up against the Hohenstaufens centuries ago, and to many an idea of Habsburg Emperor was not completely abhorrent, if an alternative to that was an effective surrender of their rights and privileges.
In a meanwhile, Ulrich von Wittelsbach saw the ranks of his army swell with thousands of soldiers from Bavaria and surrounding regions; by March 1521 he commanded an army of well over twenty thousand highly motivated and, with the help of his family in Bavaria, well equipped troops. In April he crushed another army sent against him by the Habsburg Emperor, proving to all who doubted him that his earlier victory near Trier was no fluke, and that he was a force to be reckoned with. Still, realizing the reservations the German princes had, Ulrich knew that in order to elevate himself above his current position and to subvert the existing order towards his own means he had to reach an accommodation that would not only make him the unifier of Germany, but that would also satisfy the barons whose support was vital to his endeavor. As such, he sent summons to the most prominent barons and princes to meet with him in Koln in August of 1521.
The meeting that followed is seen by many historians as the true beginning of the Unholy Roman Empire, for despite Ulrich’s coronation still being years away, much of the framework upon which the Empire was to stand was created during the great Council of Koln which was to last between August 1521 and January 1522, all the while Wittelsbach lieutenants managed to hold the Habsburg forces at bay. The one common thing all present could agree on was that to stay divided was to invite disaster; already much of England and France’s diplomatic and economic conflict was played out through the proxies of German states within and without the Baltic League, and Habsburgs’ aggressive imposition of Catholicism in their lands threatened the independence of central German lords who had little to say on the matter and whose opinion hardly influenced the Emperor in Vienna. Finally, despite the Byzantine weakness at the moment, it was only a matter of time until an Emperor worth the title ascends to the throne there, diverting his attention once again to the West, and towards Germany, and its suzerain’s claims towards an Imperial title of his own – the manifest destiny of the nation itself being threatened by the heretics from the East.
With this agreed upon, the differences between the assembled were many. Although Ulrich’s personal prestige as the vanquisher of the Habsburgs and the champion of the Johannites made him an obvious choice for the leadership of the movement, many feared that by supporting him they were merely working towards replacing the Habsburgs with the Wittelsbachs as the Empire’s ruling family, gaining little if anything in return while the state of the Empire remained ultimately unchanged, divided and fractured as ever.
Debate continued for days, even weeks with little interruption, with tempers and ambitions flaring over and over, calmed down only sporadically by the presence of somber and ascetic Puritan and Johannist clergy. By October 1521 it was agreed that upon the Habsburgs’ removal from the Imperial throne, the leading nobles of Germany would send their representatives to a great assembly called the Reichstag, the purpose of which was not only to represent the interests of their territories, but also to advise the Emperor and to provide a check on the Emperor’s temporal power.
With this out of the way, the next and potentially much trickier question was that of religion. Ever since the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire in the West Christian faith has been an important component of its continued existence; long before the fracturing of original Christianity into two – now three, with Johannists and Puritans often claiming the same cause, main factions, the dispute between the Pope and the Emperor over who held the reins of ultimate power has been indecisive, shifting towards one or the other depending on whose position was stronger. Yet, the stalemate reached by the Habsburgs who used the Pope to reach their own ends as much as the Pope used them to reach his could not appear anything but an insult to the proud people whose ancestors liberated Jerusalem alongside Barbarossa, or who expelled the Saracen from Carthage under his descendants; there was no place for the “Catholic lackeys” as the predominantly Puritan congress called Habsburgs and their supporters in the new Imperial order.
Whole books had been written about the reasoning behind and the nature of deliberations that took place in late 1521 and early 1522; the exact details thereof would make this account too burdensome to read, and would detract from its ultimate goal of describing the events leading up to the creation of the Unholy Empire itself. It suffices to say that the final account reached in January 1522 stated that while independent religious practice was the business of the states that followed it, the Empire as a whole will be secular; in adherence to the Johannist and Puritan beliefs, the clergy, called the Perfecti, or the Pure Ones in some traditions, could not and should not have the ability to influence worldly affairs – this was the prerogative of the Empire which would, on one hand, provide a shield to protect the Perfecti from worldly persecution, and, on the other hand, be a sword with which the German people carve their own path and their own manifest destiny.
These, and several other principles that would govern the new Empire were collected in what is known as the Charter of Koln, which became the basis on which many of the latter-day constitutions and legal systems were founded. In this sense, the significance of the Council of Koln transcends its undoubted impact on the history of Germany and Italy, indeed creating the foundations of the modern day federal systems which, borrowing both from the Unholy Empire itself and from the early Triple Crown alliance of Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary, had come to prominence throughout the civilized world during the Age of Revolutions a century later.
These matters resolved, Ulrich von Wittelsbach and his allies resumed on the offensive, resolving to bring down the Habsburg hegemony once and for all, and to regain the Empire that once belonged to German people at the highest point of the Hohenstaufens. For Charles VI of the Habsburg this was a moment of truth; he had to stop the rebels now and here, or face the loss of not only his primacy as the Emperor, but also of his dominions. Worse yet, with the shocking irreverence the rebels had shown to the Catholic church, the fate of True Gospel itself was at the stake.
Therefore, the army assembled by Charles VI was the largest one the Habsburgs had gathered in centuries, consisting of the Emperor’s best troops and supported by every mercenary he could find, numbering over a hundred thousand men. It was truly Charles’ last stand, with everything to gain and everything to lose should he falter.
While the Emperor himself wisely chose not to assume personal command due to his own lack of previous military experience and, at least accordingly to his memoirs, a perceived lack of ability in all things martial, he did accompany the army under the leadership of Victor von Habsburg, a distant cousin that distinguished himself numerous times against the Byzantines years ago, and that was widely considered to have been the finest military mind in Europe of the time, having studied in the best military academies of Germany, Italy, and France, and with a number of important victories on his resume.
As this army marched north to meet the Johannists in battle, Ulrich divided his forces in three, sending a small regiment of cavalry to harass the Habsburg army while a relatively large force was to camp within short distance of the loyalist army, making it appear as if this was the main rebel army. Ulrich himself was with the third group, approximately twenty five thousand men strong. While the cavalry group continued to harass the enemy, and the decoy troops led the Habsburgs on a wild goose chase through the rough terrain, Ulrich’s army maneuvered with relative impunity, advancing towards the Habsburg-held territory and launching a daring assault on Austria.
Bypassing the Habsburg borders, the rebel invading troops marched on Vienna, which fell with surprisingly little struggle thanks to the efforts of Johannist sympathizers within. To the Habsburgs, this was a double blow; not only were they outmaneuvered by the clever rebel, with their capital taken, but they had also suffered an additional blow to their legitimacy to hold the Imperial throne. Something had to be done quickly before the south falls the way the north had.
At the same time, the decoy rebel army still provided an inviting target, especially since the Habsburgs still had many times the men; given numerical superiority they enjoyed, Victor von Habsburg had little qualms about dividing the army in two, taking command of the force sent to retake Vienna, while somewhat uncharacteristically leaving the Emperor in command in the north, thinking that with Ulrich von Wittelsbach in Austria, Charles VI’s numbers and experienced command staff would ensure victory.
In 1524, the fate of rebellion rested on two battles, one fought at Vienna between the main Johannist force and the main Habsburg army, and the other fought at Tubingen just to the northwest of Bavaria, where the Emperor Charles led an assault against the fortified rebel positions. In both cases, the Habsburgs enjoyed significant numerical superiority, outnumbering the rebels by at least a factor of two in each case.
The Battle of Tubingen was the first chronologically, being fought in May 1524 as the royalists finally caught up with the decoy army, now reinforced by local levies and the cavalry regiments that previously harassed the Habsburgs on their painful way into Bavaria. Here, the result was rather inconclusive, and Charles VI claimed victory more so to satisfy his own ego than to really describe situation on the ground, where the rebels were able to retreat in orderly fashion while inflicting numerous casualties on the Habsburgs, whose only claim to winning the battle was due to retaining the battlefield itself.
It was here that Charles made a fatal strategic mistake, deciding to pursue the retreating rebels instead of fortifying his position and waiting on the outcome of the battle in Austria before rashly advancing into hostile territory. As he drew further north, he encountered nothing but scorched earth; the peasants fled with their animals to the relative safety of the heavily fortified castles of Puritan lords on northern Germany, setting fire to the crops and anything that could be used for food. By August 1524 the Habsburg army was close to starvation, which was still a looming threat when it finally reached the normally fertile Rhine valley. It was here near Heidelberg that Charles received the news of the happenings in Austria.
In a battle that is still written in the annals of military history as one of the classics that are still taught to every aspiring junior officer, Ulrich von Wittelsbach completely routed large part of the Habsburg relief army, and annihilated the rest. Ordering large portion of his cavalry to disband and to man the mobile cannons refitted from those taken from Vienna’s arsenal, he sent the rest of the cavalry out in the field, making it appear as if they were about to make a brave, albeit ultimately suicidal charge at the loyalist flank, Ulrich was able to mask his field artillery as supply wagons, ironically mimicking the tactic the Novgorodians used two centuries ago against the German knights.
Victor von Habsburg was initially cautious, expecting every kind of underhanded trickery and unscrupulous deceit from his opponent; it was then that Ulrich ordered his heavily armored cavalrymen to indeed perform the charge which thereon went in history as the famous “Charge Of One Thousand”. Unfortunately for the posterity the stirring speech he gave to his riders was not preserved, but its effects were obvious when the knights of northern Germany charged against the Habsburg positions with suicidal bravery, not only diverting the enemy attention, but also causing such casualties that Victor von Habsburg was forced to shift some of his own cavalry to the ailing flank, unable to send it against the Johannist positions as the rebels opened fire.
Of a thousand riders that charged into a Habsburg flank, only fourteen lived past the sunset, five of them expiring before the next dawn from grievous wounds. Five times their number they took to the grave with them, halting for neither the Austrian pikes nor the muskets of the enemy infantry while rendering the Habsburg field artillery practically useless with their suicidal assault. Then, just as the surviving Habsburg soldiers wiped the cold sweat off their faces after seemingly facing the very demons from the deepest, darkest circle of hell, the rebel guns began extracting their cheerfully morbid toll of life.
Until the massacre at Vienna, cavalry was still the king of the battlefield, with the infantry only recently obtaining the means to stop heavily armored charging knights with a bit of luck, a fortunate musket shot, or a well placed pike. After Vienna, the king was dethroned; the battle marked the first time artillery supremacy decided the fate of the battle not with few well-placed shots, but with an overwhelming barrage that devastated the Habsburg positions and did horrifying things to their morale. Victor von Habsburg himself was killed by artillery barrage just as he attempted to organize an orderly retreat; without him the battle turned from a major, but not completely decisive defeat into a complete rout. The survivors that did not disperse to the towns and villages surrounding Vienna surrendered to the Johannists in droves, some swearing oaths of allegiance to Ulrich von Wittelsbach and forswearing Catholicism on the spot, thus boosting the ranks of the rebel army to well over thirty thousand soldiers, despite the casualties the rebels suffered themselves.
Even with the news of disaster at Vienna Charles VI refused to admit defeat. In vain he pleaded with the barons, promising them everything he could think of for the renewal of their allegiance; even his army began to desert him. It was with mere thirty thousand or so troops that Charles VI made his last stand at Heidelberg in 1525, where he was prepared to make the rebels pay dearly for the privilege of facing the legitimate Emperor on the battlefield.
On March 18, 1525 the Johannist forces under the personal command of Ulrich von Wittelsbach faced the half-starved, desperate Habsburg army near Heidelberg in the Rhine Valley. Much poetry was written, and many great paintings still adore the halls of museums and private collectors all over the world that were inspired by the epic clash between the Emperor and his erstwhile rivals; ultimately, however, the outcome of the battle was never in doubt. The Habsburg soldiers were alternatively slaughtered or taken captive; the Emperor himself was caught trying to flee, whereupon he was brought in front of Ulrich for formal submission. The Habsburg hegemony was over – the new age, and the new Empire began.
Unholy Roman Empire (1525-1530)
As the moon fades away
And the sun turns black
The darkest fall from the sky
Prepared for their attack
In the dawning hour
The doom and destruction begins
Inside the natives minds
It seems it never ends
At once the sun turns back
And the battle stops
Everyone's in grave danger
Except for those of the dead
For the one who shall deceive us
Is the one..
Iced Earth – “Mystical End”
The surrender of Charles VI to Ulrich von Wittelsbach and his army marked the end of the Habsburg Empire, and the beginning of what would eventually become modern-day Germany. Immortalized in a famous painting by Ieronimus Duehrer, the scene still strikes us as both triumphant, majestic, and at the same time sad, frequently mentioned by many as not only the beginnings of the modern world, but also as the end of the old, fading of the era we call the Middle Ages into the early Modern Times.
After the formal surrender, Charles von Habsburg, no longer Emperor, was sent to live in effective exile near Hamburg, where the terms of his existence could be best described as honorary imprisonment; there he spent his time composing memoirs which are one of our best sources on the establishment of the Unholy Roman Empire, providing a unique viewpoint of a ruler once opposed to it, and examining its development with critical and not always favorable eye. It is said that towards the end of his life Charles made his own conversion to Johannism, at which stage he destroyed large portion of his manuscript, presumably the one dealing with critique of this development of Puritan Christianity; some day we might know for sure, for large portions of Charles’ manuscripts were only published centuries later upon being discovered by his descendants, and many more could still lay hidden in or around his luxurious yet somehow confining Hamburg residence.
While sporadic pockets of resistance in shape of stubborn Habsburg loyalists in Austria remained, the war in Germany was for all practical purposes over; it was time for the victorious rebels to determine what they were to do next. For the first time since the age of the Hohenstaufens Germany was finally a united country in practice as well as in theory; it would still take time to heal the wounds caused by the civil war, and to establish an effective government, overcoming the resident idea of many small, but practically independent states being gathered in a loose confederation and replacing them with said states as subjects of a federation in which all have a say, and which has responsibilities to all of its subjects as well as demands of them all.
The parade of victory as Johannist army entered Vienna in late 1525 was truly a spectacular sight, culminating with the dedication of the great monument to the victory that would be built over the next year. From a theoretical standpoint, the Empire itself was without an Emperor, for Charles VI had to abdicate the title as one condition of surrender, whereas Ulrich von Wittelsbach, though undoubtedly the prime candidate for Emperorship, was quoted as saying that the Empire he strived to restore was not just German – just like Hohenstaufens and even their unworthy Habsburg successors claimed to be Roman Emperors, they were the latter-day Roman Empire of the West, deriving their claim as much from Barbarossa and his descendants as from Charlemagne, Constantine, and Augustus. Only by holding Rome could this Empire pretend on the title of Roman, and without the city and all that it symbolized, the German people could not claim the true Imperial greatness.
Such was the logic of Ulrich when he declared that he intended to restore the glory of Germany by taking up the mantle of its last truly great rulers – an Empire in truth indeed, instead of merely in the name, through marching into the serpent’s nest itself – the heart of Catholicism, Rome. Only with Rome securely within its borders, and with the Papacy destroyed as a coherent force could the worldly Empire prevail – or so the Johannists believed.
After spending a year consolidating the recently retaken Imperial dominions and creating the institutions to govern the Empire in his absence, Ulrich called for the great invasion of Italy that will make his Empire Roman in more than just a name. He was greatly helped by strife occurring in the nations that would normally have presented difficulties over an assault on Italy; the French had recently discovered the Aztec Empire, and used all of their spare manpower and resources that were not dedicated to subjugating Puritan rebels in the south-eastern France to subjugate it, believing that its immense wealth would go a long way towards securing French domination of Europe; English, though friendly towards the Johannist regime, were spending much of their resources opposing the French by arming the Aztecs and allied nations to resist the French expansion into the region.
The Triple Crown of Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary was experiencing growing unrest due to its inherently fragile nature as essentially a personal union of three separate and distinct nations; the nationalist sentiment in all of the three resulted in weakening of the central government to the point where the native Polish dynasty became increasingly unpopular, seen as favoring Poland over the other two members of the union. When the dynasty became extinct in 1524 with the death of Jan V, the question of succession nearly erupted into a full-scale civil war when the Hungarians and the Lithuanians presented their own candidates to the Triple Crown, both seen as unacceptable in Poland. By 1526 the chaos subsumed, but only somewhat; while theoretically still parts of the same entity, the Commonwealth, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland had their own monarchs, all laying claim on the Triple Crown itself, and often promoting contradictory and mutually exclusive policies. By some miracle the Triple Crown, or, as it became increasingly known, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania-Hungary survived this fracturing for another thirty seven years until in 1563 that moribund union finally gave up the ghost, dissolving with relatively minimal amount of collateral damage into the three states it was made up from, along with the newly reestablished state of Bohemia, the creation of which many believe was the trigger for the Commonwealth’s final dissolution.
This left the collection of Italian city-states and Papal dominions on their own to resist the oncoming invasion. In vain had the Pope Stephen XI pleaded with various states; in an ironic twist, only the Aragonese agreed to send any significant military help; the French could only offer the Pope a place of refuge, being too preoccupied with their covert conflict with the English, and able to send only a small contingent of barely over a thousand soldiers. Thus it was left to Stephen XI to defend the seat of Saint Peter and the remainder of the Holy Roman Empire from Ulrich von Wittelsbach and his Germans.
The Italian campaign lasted for three years, over the course of which the Johannist armies laid waste to all who opposed them, forcing reluctant cooperation from the once-proud Venetian Republic that hoped for its only chance to regain its former prominence as an ally of the German invaders. The great battles of Milan in 1527 and Verona in 1528 saw the Papal and allied Italian armies all but annihilated; Genoa fell in 1528 after a year-long siege which is said to have reduced the city’s population by as many as two thirds when its citizens were reduced to eating the bodies of their dead after successful land and naval blockade, the latter accomplished through judicious assistance of Venetian navy and capture of much of Genovese fleet in harbor of Amalfi a year earlier. The final blow to the cause of Catholicism in Italy fell in 1529 when Sicily finally threw the Papal legates and meager garrison off the island, openly proclaiming allegiance to the German Emperor-to-be; Syracuse was the only exception to the general rule, where significant number of Greeks asked the Byzantine Emperor Alexius IX for protection in return for their allegiance.
In 1530 the German army advanced on Rome itself after solidifying its dominance in Northern Italy. The situation in the Eternal City reminisced of nothing more than sheer panic; just as the most fanatical of the Catholics prepared to make a desperate last stand, much of the city’s clerical hierarchy and aristocracy fled for the relative safety of Bari, where Byzantine overlordship appeared preferable alternative to the unholy German horde. The Pope himself decided that time was right to accept the earlier French offer, taking to the sea in hopes of slipping past the Venetian and captured Genovese warships.
On August 4th, 1530 Rome was within the sights of German army, and the last battle of the Italian War began. Despite the German superiority in artillery, Ulrich ordered his commanders to limit the use of cannons in an attempt to not damage Rome itself – his future capital, and his claim to the Hohenstaufen throne left desolate by centuries of Habsburg “Emperorship”; the battle was therefore to be decided by the old-fashioned yet somehow more inspirational for lyrical and visual epics meeting of soldiers face to face on the battlefield that had seen many centuries of war and thousands, maybe even millions of slain throughout the ages.
The Catholic defenders fought with all the desperation of a cornered animal, knowing that their defeat here would mean the final defeat of their cause in Italy, and, quite possibly, elsewhere in Europe, with the heresy achieving dominance. Time and time again the Germans were repulsed from the Italian lines, suffering terrible casualties every time, yet pushing on and on, forcing the Catholics deeper and deeper into the city. By the sundown of August 5th the battle degenerated into a mess of brutal hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of Rome, where the Germans paid dearly for every house, every intersection, yet still moved on, determined to find their people’s manifest destiny in retaking the mantle of the empire that once had been theirs.
The fighting continued through the night, stopping only when the victorious conquerors realized there was no one left to fight them; the Catholic defenders were slaughtered almost to a man. Then, the sack of Rome began; in vain Ulrich attempted to restrain his troops, wishing to keep his future capital entire and undamaged; only after a day’s worth of pillage some semblance of order was restored in the German army. This would have been the perfect time for the Catholics to strike back and inflict what could have been a severe defeat on the invaders – but any organized Catholic resistance had long since ceased, the Catholic troops slaughtered or in hiding, local militias refusing to take up arms against the conquerors lest their cities suffer the same fate as Genoa.
On August 6th, remaining citizens of Rome along with whichever Catholic clergy remained in the city, expecting martyrdom which some found, yet with the most part obtaining little more than indignation, were subject to a curious sight. The elite guards of the German army lined up in front of the Lateran Palace, previously the Papal residence ever since its donation to the Pope Silvester over a thousand years ago by the Emperor Constantine, but now without a master; the crowds, gathered by the Johannist footsoldiers under threat of force, stood close by. As the sun rose in the heat of Italian August, Ulrich von Wittelsbach rode in through the lines of his loyal troops, and under the eyes of his reluctant future subjects, mounted on a white charger and clad in armor covered with the insignia of ancient Roman eagles and clad in the cloak of red, yellow, white, blue, and black of the Wittelsbach house, yet adorned with the Imperial purple, making it obvious to any onlooker that what they were observing was the return of the Emperors to Rome, the city from which an Empire sprang up, only to be demolished by centuries of weakness, indecisiveness, and taking up the holy mantle whereas it truly only belonged to the Lord himself up in Heaven.
Along with the Emperor-to-be walked thirteen Perfecti, all clad in black robes of repentance for the sins of their fellow men, each representing one of the apostles, whose sins they were about to erase in destroying the heart of Catholicism, and reclaiming it for the imperfect, and therefore unholy world for the glory of the Heavenly Father Himself. As this solemn yet triumphant procession approached the Lateran Palace, the troopers dragged out two struggling clerics in cardinals’ clothing, both certain to meet their death at the hands of the Germans; they held out defiantly in face of the approaching Johannists, awaiting the crown of martyrdom that never came.
At the sign from Ulrich the Perfecti descended on the two cardinals, tearing away their insignia and throwing it to the ground in a symbolic desecration of their office that was no longer needed; then, their Imperial liege dismounted, accepting a torch from one of the footsoldiers and lighting up a pile of elaborate clothing and decorations that adorned the cardinals only few short moments ago. As the smoke rose up to the sky, Ulrich was said to recite a verse of late Johann von Klause’s “Book Of The World” :
And thou shall take up with the serpents
And kneel before the carrion birds
Yet as high as thy rise is it shall never stain the Lord’s presence with thy foulness
Then, the two unfortunate prelates were made to kneel before their new sovereign before being led away by the Imperial guards; the procession had by then reached the very entrance to the palace.
Standing on the steps leading into the Lateran Palace, Ulrich von Wittelsbach took the crown from the hands of the Perfecti, laying it upon his head as a secular Emperor of a secular Empire. Then, he spoke:
“My brothers in arms and my fellows in Christ, the day has come to erase the ignoble memory of shame that this so-called ‘Holy’ Empire has been. Only the Heavenly Father Himself could make that claim, and the men that claimed to speak for Him were unworthy, wasting their time with worldly matters while leaving our people, our nation to suffer under the yoke of tyrants and false prophets. This world’s holiness has been dissipated by these tyrants and their henchmen, until none of it was left but the Revelation given to the Perfecti, which we pledged our hearts and souls to.
Yet today their tyranny is overthrown, and our victory is final. Though true purity may never return to this world while it is made of crude flesh and soulless matter, we may yet attain the purity of spirit, and the greatness of Roman Empire that our unworthy predecessors let slide out of their hands and into the cesspits of shame. For this day, as I lay the crown on my head as your Emperor, shall go in history as the day our Empire stands united for the first time in centuries. For the Holy Heavens,” he paused, observing the crowd, sensing the gravity of the moment and knowing that this was the shape of destiny weighting down the burning sun, the oppressive heat, and the people waiting in anticipation of the inevitable.
“For the Holy Heavens, there is a Holy Empire of Rome with the Divine Mandate beyond this world. For the world devoid of holiness and sacred purity, there shall be the Empire of the world – The Unholy Roman Empire of the German Nation!”
Unholy Roman Empire – The Legacy – An Afterword
Thus our tale of how the Unholy Roman Empire came to be approaches its conclusion, culminating with Ulrich von Wittelsbach’s coronation in Rome that promised to restore the Empire of his Hohenstaufen spiritual predecessors, and to crush the very essence of Catholicism that many in the Empire believed was the root of its many misfortunes. Indeed, not only the domination of fervently Catholic Habsburgs was but a thin cover of paint on the rusting body of their so-called Empire, but the conflict between the Pope and the Emperor over who possessed the supreme authority caused much misery and suffering from the days predating even the Hohenstaufens and on.
As the crowds in Germany and pro-Imperial parts of the polity celebrated wildly on the streets of their cities, many in the rest of Europe took on a more concerned mood, for if this happened in Germany and Italy, where would the plague of nationalism coated in a cloak of Johannist dogma strike next? This forced the Emperor Ulrich to make a difficult choice.
As a Johannist believer, and a first of the Unholy Emperors, it was his duty as the shield protecting the ascetics that labor for the good of all to do everything in his power to not allow enemies of his faith and of his people to wage war upon his lands – yet it was apparent that only through force of arms could his new Empire obtain even a grudging tolerance from its neighbors, and some of the more fanatical zealots whose number kept on growing towards frightening proportions would not stop until not only the Empire of Frederick II was restored, but until the original Roman Empire is regained under the wing of the new faith, with Catholicism and the evils it represented being relegated to the status of distant memory, a long-forgotten heresy. There had to be a way, Ulrich thought, to ride the tiger that he helped to unleash, and to ensure that his nation would survive through the pains of its turbulent birth.
There was still a significant minority of the Catholics in the Empire – in fact, in its southern half they constituted an overwhelming majority of the population, and as much as the more zealous of the Johannist congregation spoke out for forcibly converting them, in most cases this was simply not an option, especially since many flat out refused to convert, and forcing them to do so would ignite the flames of rebellion once more. The fact that the Johannists looked at the Catholics as little more than devil-worshippers was not lost on the Emperor; yet igniting another war of religion was an open invitation to the French, the Aragonese, or any of the other powers with designs on the Imperial territory to invade.
Therefore, Ulrich’s Edict of Tolerance, modeled heavily after Constantine’s proclamation twelve centuries earlier, was only a temporary solution to the problem, the one that would come back to haunt Ulrich’s eventual successors in the years to come, and the flames of which never quite went out until the Sorrow. Still, for a time being, Ulrich was content, for not only had he overthrew the old order, but he began sowing the seeds of the new that, as the history would prove, would manage to survive both his death and, it can be argued, even the calamities that the coming of Modern Age would wreck on Europe and the world in general.
It is arguable that by the latter years of his reign Ulrich I began seeing himself as another Constantine. After all, he did bring new faith to his Empire, enforcing domestic tranquility and external peace (the latter due to somewhat liberal use of Church treasury for what was essentially bribes to the other nations to leave the Unholy Empire unmolested while its forces were still rebuilding from one of the most brutal civil wars in the history of the continent), and rapidly working towards creating a unified German nation where only a generation before was a mess of petty baronies, city-states, and pocket-sized empires that fell as quickly as they arose. By mid-1550s the Empire was finally a stable entity.
Just as the Empire of the West quickly regained cohesion, strength, and sense of purpose, its Eastern counterpart continued to suffer one misfortune after another. With the forced abdication of Alexius IX in 1531, Byzantium fell into a civil war that was to last for quite some time as its neighbors watched with amusement and, in some cases, with more than little interest. In the Unholy Empire, many pointed out that the failures of that Empire so dominated by its religious persuasion and its pretense towards being the true heirs of Rome were the reasons for its undoing, and, contrasted with relative tranquility and order in their own lands, were yet more proof of the truth of Johannist philosophy.
It is then believed that in the last decade of his life and reign, the Emperor began espousing the ideas of not only claiming the Roman mantle in the West through control of Rome and core Roman territories, but also spreading the message of his Empire and his faith throughout Europe, and, Lord willing, the New World, where the French and the English began carving out considerable colonial empires. If he was Constantine or Charlemagne of his day, is it not fitting that he reigns over the Empire that is equal to, or even superior of theirs?
The late Emperor Ulrich was only the second person joining the ranks of the Exalted, preceded only by the founder of Johannist faith himself; it was said later that Ulrich I was seen by a number of Perfecti in their visions as holding the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven, superseding the Catholic belief of the First Deceiver and the founder of the Papacy previously occupying this role. Even to this day, the number of the Exalted is few, unlike the old tradition of the Catholics or of the Orthodox that seem to have given so-called “sainthood” to even the most undeserving of the individuals merely for their gifts of gold or other donations.
The thoughts and ideas mentioned above factored well in Ulrich’s choice of possible successor; even though the new Emperor would technically be elected by the Reichstag, right amount of support would ensure that this august body would pick the right man to succeed to the throne. When the Emperor passed on in 1561, he was content that his life’s work would be continued by the man who would go down in history as Heinrich (or, in the Britannic spelling that we had formerly used, Henry) IX.
While the story of Heinrich IX is told in more details in the volumes covering that time period, it does suffice to say that although he had a great man to follow, he proved himself a more than capable successor, described as a competent administrator, and, in times of dispute, an arbiter that was trusted by most sides of the argument. It is the latter characteristic that earned him the name of Heinrich the Just even during his life, and made all the more poignant in the light of abuses of authority of the Habsburg regime.
There could have been no doubt of Heinrich’s genuine faith; as such, despite being freed from constraints of asceticism by one of the chief tenets of the faith, he lived a life of almost monastic frugality, abstaining from all meat and most pleasures a man of his station would normally be expected to enjoy, and dedicating all of his energy to the gigantic task of running the Empire with strong and steady hand. One anecdote in particular tells that Heinrich gave the palace presented to him by the Reichstag to the Perfecti monastery, choosing to live in a simple chamber along with the ascetics themselves, distinguished only by it being slightly cleaner than the rest of the palace-monastery – making a French diplomat remark that Heinrich would rather be a second man in the monastery than the first man in Rome.
As such, while he might not have enjoyed the same popularity as his charismatic predecessor, he commanded enormous respect amongst his subjects, and leaders of the other nations he dealt with over the course of his reign – a sheer contrast to the degenerate pleasure slaves that passed for Emperors in the East during his time. It is because of him that the foundations of the Unholy Empire grew strong and proud from the soil stained by debauchery and sacrilege, division and malcontent.
The XVIth century was not only the time of the Unholy Roman Empire becoming a force in the world; it was also the age when foundations of the greatness of Europe finally bore fruit, and the age that we consider to be a direct predecessor of Unity of today, forged out of the faith followed by the brave few that set on to change the world – and did. Could one argue that without the spirit of the Unholy Empire the world we know today would not have existed, descending instead into the mindless savagery and wanton liberalism, or falling towards the reign of the theocrats and their Holy Force? Our world has seen years of conflict, and will without doubt see many more until the Purification comes, yet what kind of a nightmare would become of it without the Revelations received by the earliest of the Perfecti, and without the Swords of the Faith provided by the Unholy Empire itself?
For our nation gave this one gift to the world, even if all of its other considerable offerings were discounted, that would stand the test of time and that defined not only the continued dominance of our continent on this Unholy world, but the salvation of humanity beyond it. And just as the ascetic of fable merged with the earth to give it purity of his vision, the original vision still lives on in our times as Unity, holding the fabric of Europe and its Commissariats throughout the world as one whole that still carries the name its proud founders gave the nation that led the world for centuries – the Unholy Roman Empire.