The Middle Ages—generally agreed to begin in Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE—were a period marked by warfare that decided the fate of empires around the world. Also known as the medieval period, this boundary-shifting era ran into the beginning of the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery in the 15th century—different historians demarcate different start and end dates for the medieval period.
However you slice it, though, the medieval period stretches for a long time (as much as a millennium), and it saw plenty of battles that caused massive changes to the political, social, and even geographical shape of Europe and the world. These are ten of the most decisive, important, and downright epic battles of the Middle Ages: battles that determined the fate of empires and changed history forever.
The Battle of Hulao
The Tang Dynasty ruled China until 907 CE. Its beginnings were marked by the demise of the Sui Dynasty—although with less than 40 years of rule, calling it a dynasty may be a stretch. Many scholars posit the demise of the Sui at the decisive battle of Hulao Pass. Li Shimin, a prince of the rising Tang Dynasty, had been leading a lengthy siege against the city of Luoyang when an army of more than 100,000 troops commanded by Dou Jiande of the Sui came to relieve the beleaguered city.
Li Shimin used a mere 10,000 of his own troops to hold the reinforcements off at Hulao Pass for weeks. In a daring tactic, Li Shimin took only five men into the Xia camp early in the siege. He and his companions took many officers captive, while leading hundreds of men back to his line of 500 horsemen to be slaughtered. At the end of the standoff, Li Shimin managed to capture Dou Jiande and 50,000 of his troops, bringing them back to Luoyang, where the discouraged defenders of the city ultimately surrendered. Li Shimin’s forces, nimbler than their opponents, were able to bring down troops over 10 times their size in one of the most dramatic battles of the medieval era.
The Battle of Tours
In Arabic, this infamous battle is called the “Battle of the Court of Martyrs”, named for those who died there as Moorish general Abd-er Rahman led his Muslim forces from the Iberian Peninsula into Gaul, where they were met by a Frankish army under the command of Charles Martel. Martel earned the nickname “Martellus”, meaning “hammer”, from his victory at Tours, and many historians believe that the Umayyad Caliphate might have conquered all of Europe had Martel’s forces not stopped them here.
Sadly, few details about the battle have made it to the present day. Even the exact location is unknown, although it’s usually accepted that the battle took place where the Clain and Vienne rivers join. Non-contemporaneous chroniclers claimed that 375,000 men were killed on the Umayyad side, with only 1,500 casualties amongst the Franks–these numbers, strangely, were also claimed for the Battle of Toulouse. Despite the lack of solid information, the Battle of Tours is remembered as a decisive victory for the Franks.
The Battle of Hastings
When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, the throne of England was suddenly contested. While the crown technically passed to Harold Godwinson, William the Conqueror, then only the Duke of Normandy, claimed that Edward had promised the throne to him. The Battle of Hastings, where William’s forces fought and defeated Godwinson’s, is regarded as a significant turning point in the history of the sceptered isle. From there, William’s army marched on London, where he ultimately became the first Norman king of England. This medieval battle has become so well-known that a mere reference to the year functions as a metonym for the Battle of Hastings and the end of the Anglo-Saxon rule—hence the many books with 1066 in their titles.
The Battle of Hattin
The First Crusade had established Christian crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land a hundred years before, and when one of those fell, a Second Crusade was called. This one was far less successful than its predecessor.
In 1187, Saladin, who was then Sultan of Egypt and Syria, led an army 30,000 strong against the city of Tiberias in an effort to draw out the Christian forces. The gambit worked, and King Guy of Jerusalem sent one of the largest armies of crusaders ever assembled against Saladin’s forces.
By taking advantage of the terrain and the arid air, Saladin was able to force the demoralized and dehydrated crusaders into a last stand at the Horns of Hattin, where they were defeated. King Guy was take captive by Saladin, although his life was spared. Shortly after, Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s forces, and the Second Crusade came to a close with one of the most resounding Muslim victories in all the Crusades.
The Battle of Bouvines
Attempting to retake Norman lands lost to France, England’s King John, without the support of barons back home, organized a coalition force to ambush Philip II of France at Bouvines in what has been called “the most important battle in English history that no one has ever heard of.”
Though Philip was pulled from his horse and nearly killed, his forces ultimately won the day, and King John returned to England in defeat. His popularity, already floundering amongst nobles, took a nosedive after his terms of surrender involved significant recompensation paid to Philip II. Many scholars believe that, had he won in Bouvines, John may not have had to sign the Magna Carta the following year, which ultimately limited the power of the crown and became a symbol of parliamentary rather than feudal rule.
The Battle of Mohi
In the 13th century, an enormous Mongolian army struck the eastern borders of Europe in pursuit of a nomadic Turkish tribe called the Cumans. Under the leadership of Batu Khan and Sabutai, the Mongols deployed innovative tactics including catapult-fired explosives and the construction of a pontoon bridge across a major river to outflank and ultimately crush the Hungarian army at Mohi.
Hungary was devastated by the Mongolian invasion, and as much as a quarter of the population was wiped out. This sent a wave of fear through the rest of Europe, but ultimately the Mongols turned back the following year when Ogedai Khan, heir to Genghis Khan, passed away. Less a battle of political stakes, this attack was instead a signal of what the future of warfare would look like.
The Crusade of Nicopolis
Crusaders from France, England, Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and other countries laid siege to Nicopolis, a key position for controlling the lower Danube. Their goal was the capture of the city before the Ottoman Empire could send reinforcements, but their hopes were dashed when the Ottoman army clashed with them in what proved to be a rout. Most of the crusader army was destroyed, and the Ottomans were free to expand their influence in the region. This battle is seen as leading to the fall of the Second Bulgarian Empire. One of the last major Crusades, the Battle of Nicopolis greatly strengthened the Ottoman empire, which would continue to expand over the next two centuries.
The Battle of Grunwald
According to some sources, nearly 70,000 soldiers may have fought in this clash between the Teutonic Knights and their Polish rivals, making it one of the largest battles of medieval Europe. The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had brokered a treaty with the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic military order. When that nine-month truce came to an end, the Knights attacked. The Teutons had carved out significant power and territory in Europe as part of their quest to rid the continent of what they termed pagan religions, but their defeat at Grunwald signaled the beginning of the end of their dominance. The battle also saw the cementing of a Polish-Lithuanian alliance that became one of the leading powers on the continent. The Great War would continue for another year, but the damage to the Teutonic Knights was final.
The Siege of Orléans
Near the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the English and their French allies laid siege to the French city of Orléans for nearly seven months. The siege was ultimately broken just nine days after Joan of Arc joined the French army. According to most scholars, if Orléans had fallen, England would have conquered France, transforming it into “a second Ireland under the yoke of the triumphant English.” With those stakes–and the impending devastation of Orléans itself–there’s no surprise that this medieval siege is remembered long past its end.
The Battle of Castillon
The somewhat-misnamed Hundred Years’ War was actually a string of conflicts that had been raging between England and France since 1337. Regardless, the war came to a decisive end at Castillon in 1453. The English had recently retaken Bordeaux; in retaliation, the French army lay siege to Castillon.
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewbury, led a force intent on breaking the siege. Instead, they marched into the face of a French artillery barrage, which is considered one of the first extremely effective deployments of gunpowder on the field. Effective it was too, routing the English forces in a decisive victory that cost Talbot his life and led to the English surrendering Bordeaux and to the end of the lengthy conflict.
These are just a few of the most significant battles that took place during this lengthy, colorful, and often bloody period of world history… let us know if there are any you wish we hadn’t left out!
Feature painting of 'Bataille de Bouvines' by Philippe Auguste: Wikimedia Commons