Nantes Crusade

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Prince John Alexander of Saxony, founder of the Order of Saxon Knights

The Nantes Crusade (1212–1228) was a 16-year military campaign initiated by the Catholic Church to eliminate the Cathar refugees in Faeland. The Crusade was prosecuted primarily by the French Bishop of Nantes, Gautier III (who died that same year) and promptly took on a political flavor, resulting in not so much a cleansing of heresy as an invasion and establishment of a new polity in Faeland; bringing it into the scope of European affairs and diminishing any hopes for Nantes increased influence on the island.

When Gautier III declared a crusade, he offered the lands of the local pagan populace to any Christian nobleman willing to take up arms. The promise attracted many French and German noblemen, who flocked to the port in anticipation.

The crusade also had a role in the creation and institutionalization of the Order of Saxon Knights and subsequently their state.

The landing point for the operation was at the mouth of the Raebigho River, at the port of Servon.

Background

At the time of the crusade, there had been Cathar activity in Faeland for less than a decade, and they were relatively untroubled on the island until this time. A great number of Cathars had reached Faeland after the outbreak of the Albigensian crusade, mostly leaving from Bordeaux, in the Aquitaine region of France.

The exact number of Cathars in Faeland at the time of crusade is not certain, but some have put the number of refugees as low as 400. At any rate, the number of Cathars on the island at any time was an infinitesimally small number. At their height, Cathar Faels constituted a small group, and were mostly to be found in Argenteau, which became a primary target.

It is most likely that bishop Gautier's crusade was intended to bring Argenteau under his jurisdiction more than to eliminate any Cathar "threat".

Crusade of 1212/13

Gautier III called for a crusade under the leadership of Prince John Alexander of Germany, an ambitious minor noble, and chose as papal legate the Bishop of Brest, who was bedridden (speculation posits this was precisely the reason he was chosen). Saxon and French crusaders began gathering in Nantes in the summer of 1212, but serious planning only began in the fall with the arrival of nobles such as Duke William of Scleschwig, Baron Egereth of Lotharingia, and Sibald of Neustria. Numerous French nobles began endowing Gautier's new "Bishopric of Faeland" with estates and castles in French land during the meantime. The lords agreed that the initial primary focus was to overtake the defenses of Servon, whose fortress was almost completely impregnable. By spring, most of the crusaders had left for Faeland, and the Saxon and French warriors overtook Servon, forcing its lord, Othicar, to seek asylum in the Faelish court at Aln. From the start, then, conflict with the local rulers was a foregone conclusion. It should be noted however that the main Faelish kingdom at this time had only recently been re-unified, and tenuously at that. Three powerful families were vying for control of the throne (see Three Kingdoms Period), creating a fertile ground for marauding crusaders.

In the summer as 1213 twelve north German knights were recruited by Prince John Alexander to form a military order. First granted the estate of a murdered noble in the lands north of Servon until the completion of a castle, the group became known as the Order of Saxon Knights of Prince John. The Knights of Prince John initially had success driving the local Faels from their territory, but a pagan counterattack against them killed most of the founding warriors. The survivors retreated to the coast for refuge.

The Plea of Uinor

A 15th century copy of the alleged Treaty of Arausio, written in Old Faelish using the Old Faelish Script.

Before renewing the campaign against the "Cathars", the Saxon Knights allegedly signed the Treaty of Arausio with the Faelish nobles of Uinor on February 25, 1214, by which the Order was to receive Servon and any future conquests, in return for aid against the House of Megedo in any potential hostilities. This is the so-called "Plea of Uinor". The agreement has been disputed by historians; the document has been lost and many Faelish historians have doubted its authenticity and the military order's territorial claims. From the viewpoint of Prince John, at any rate, Servon was only to be used as a temporary base against the Faelish interlopers and future conquests were to be undertaken with the ultimate goal of Argenteau. Nevertheless, the order saw the document as granting recognition and therefore autonomy in all territorial acquisitions, aside from allegiance to the Bishop of Nantes and the Holy See, ultimately, and the Holy Roman Emperor (a compromise between French and German knights in the Order was made: fealty to the German secular power alongside subservience to French ecclesiastic authority). The pope issued a bull reaffirming the Order's control of conquered lands, ostensibly sanctioning their independence as well.

Dispositions of the Cantons

Main article: Octarchy

The 14th century chronicler Petros of Códini mentioned several ethnic districts in the region of the crusade (lower and upper foothills of the Aemili Mountains and the Raebigho River Valley, roughly contiguous with modern Saxony), many of which had Sarmatio-Faelish roots in the Alan invasion: Sartia, Sauroter, Falindia, Noëvia, Adumnia, Pomnia, Sudofia, and Pontis. Petros estimated that while most "tribes" (to be understood as cantons) could muster about 500 cavalry, Pontis could raise nearly 1,000 cavalry and 5,000 infantry, while Sauroter, the poorest district, had "an almost innumerable multitude of warriors" (likely yeomen). In contrast, the Order had maybe a few hundred untested knights and their retainers, as well as about 1,000 heavy infantry.

Initial Campaigns of the Saxon Knights

Map showing the cantons at the start of the Nantes Crusade.

After receiving or forging a claim to Adumnia in late 1214, Prince John dispatched Egereth as his envoy with a small force of four Knights and 100 foot soldiers to the upper Raebigho as a vanguard. They took possession of a fortified hilltop, where a castle was being built. They named the site Weznys and took over construction, altering the plans to accommodate a fortified abbey. This region on the west bank of the River Raebigho was relatively safe with a mixed Christian and Vian population (records do not mention any Cathars), and Egereth ordered a small raid against Vians across the river. Led by a commander from Servon, reinforcements numbering twenty knights and 200 men-at-arms arrived at Weznys in 1215 after the castle's completion. John Alexander could not spare any more, as the Order's primary bases of operation were in Servon and, to some extent, still in Nantes, France.

While the earlier sorties of French knights had usually marched westward into the Faelish wilderness, the Order focused in the east for the time being to establish outposts along the River Raebigho. They campaigned annually whenever crusading knights from France arrived. The early campaigns were primarily composed of German and some French crusaders, as well as some Prussian militiamen auxiliaries. The Saxon and Swabian dukes proved essential through their providing of troops and bases. Most of the secular crusaders would return to their homes after the end of the campaigns, leaving the monastic Saxon Knights the task of consolidating the gains and garrisoning the newly built forts, most of which were small and made of timber. Some secular Saxon knights were granted vacant territories, especially in Sauroter, although most of the conquered territory was retained by the Order. Colonists from the Holy Roman Empire began to immigrate as well, allowing the foundation of a new town each year, many of which were granted privileged status in the Order's bylaws.

An anachronistic 15th century depiction of a battle for control of Bessirke.

The crusaders began campaigning against the neighboring Kingdom of Landamaer, a petty rival to the Alnish hegemon (Kingdom of Faeland) in the region, and their ruler Goidhin. Advancing from Weznys in 1215, Prince John took control of ruins at modern Bessirke and advanced toward the Vian-occupied timber castle. A local Faelish captain defected and handed that castle to the crusaders, who then destroyed the Faelish troops inside. The defecting captain then tricked Goidhin into being captured by the Knights, ending Landamaer resistance in the region. By November of 1215 the Knights had established or rebuilt fortlets between the towns of Weznys and Bessirke and southward in the direction of Tragh and Verdh. Pope Innocent III sent word from Rome that Prince John could establish himself as the pope's king in Faeland. This led to John styling himself the King of the Faelish and being crowned in December 1215. This would lead to inevitable conflict with the Kingdom of Faeland (over the form of words, as is often the case).

In spring 1216, the Knights led a crusading army of 2,000 and established a fortress in Sudofia (modern Bendumersiel). The population was conscripted into a smaller army for an invasion eastward toward Frosino. After a close battle, the Vian/Christian Frosini routed the Knights by the arrival of the superior numbers of cavalry, and the battlefield was subsequently known as the "Field of the Thousands" for the dead littering it.

The bishop of Nantes claimed two-thirds of conquered territory, granting one-third to the Saxon Order. The papal legate mediated between the two sides, eventually granting the Knights two-thirds but reserving extra rights for the bishop. The Knights also sought the incorporation of the small Order of Brest into the larger Saxon Order. This infuriated the largely German cavaliers, and the Order of Brest sat idly in Brittany for a great time while the matter was resolved. With the approval of the pope and the bishop of Nantes, the Saxon Knights assimilated the Order by papal bull on April 19, 1215. The newly rechristened Sword-Brothers of the Brittan Order, joined their comrades as garrison troops in Servon. They were allowed to maintain their styles, colors, and language, so long as they swore fealty to the Saxon cross (a totem cross was kept in the abbey at Weznys, made of Faelish wood and French gold).

Carving showing the assassination of Coliano by arrows. It is unknown the manner of his death.

With more troops now free, the crusaders advanced north along both banks of the Raebigho and faced northwest and forced the submission of most of Sudofia. Although John did not participate in the 1216 campaign against the Sudofians, a friendly local margrave supplied the Order with two large river-boats which defeated the smaller craft used by the native oppida. Near the Saxon outposts, Gielde was founded with colonists from Lübeck, while Christburg (modern Cansellorsberg) protected the land west of Bessirke. Christburg, however, was overrun rather soon by natives of Pomnia canton.

From 1216-17, the Saxon Knights campaigned against the Pomnians, Noëvians, and Falindians. A small force of crusading knights were slaughtered besieging the Falindian fort near modern Saunderton, leading general Dieter von Stachia to return with a larger army. When the Falindian commander Coliano advised that the Vians should surrender and convert, his own garrison killed him, leading Dieter to order a successful capture of the fort. A Falindian counterattack to reclaim the fort failed, and the local leader was killed. Seasonal reinforcements consolidated Saxon control over the area.

First Faelish Uprising

The Saxon Knights' further advance into Faeland was slowed by the outbreak of the First Faelish Uprising in late 1216. Alarmed by the crusaders' rapid expansion into territory bordering his lands, the Megedo Duke Aramish of Deva allied with the conquered Pomnians and supported an armed rebellion against the crusaders. The Saxon Order's capacity to resist was weakened, as there were fewer German crusaders arriving and their leaders were feuding amongst themselves.

The crusaders' cavalry and crossbow artillery proved overwhelming in level terrain, but the Faelish were more experienced and maneuverable in smaller skirmishes in wooded terrain. While the Faelish and Pomnian troops captured the majority of the Order's castles and defeated the Knights in one pitched battle, they lacked the siege capabilities to finish the Knights completely. The Saxons used their politics and diplomacy to divide Aramish from the Pomnians. The Ainmurech family of the Faelish Kingdom sought the Pomnian's territory as a buttress against Megedo power in the region, and the Saxons were able to exploit this. Aramish thus ceased aiding the Pomnians while most of the latter agreed to peace in the Treaty of Christburg in February 1217. The treaty granted civil liberties and considerable autonomy to native converts to Christianity. While the majority of cantons followed the terms of the treaty, intermittent fighting continued until 1218, with the Noëvians even defeating the Order on one occasion.

Pontis

After the western Faels were pacified by early 1218, the Saxon Knights continued their advance north and west, next facing the Pontines of thickly-populated Pontis. A Count Heinrich led an army across rough terrain in 1218, with the intention of attacking the Hranichli Duchy of the Kingdom of Faeland. The Pontines defeated the crusaders in battle before they reached their destination, however, killing Heinrich in the process. To replace the fallen soldiers, the pope began preaching a crusade against the Pontines. The Order was concerned that the Faels would seek to join Hranichli if they were pressed too greatly. With the rebellious cantons pacified, the pope directed Dominican monks to preach the crusade, and the Order sent embassies to the princes of the Holy Roman Empire. While the Order waited for the crusaders to arrive in Faeland, the Brest branch founded Köngstat along the border to prevent the Faelish armies from invading "Saxony".

The resulting 5,000-strong crusading army which gathered for the campaign included Bohemians and Austrians, Moravians and more Saxons, most of whom were inducted into the Order. The Pontines were crushed at the Battle of Muriel, and the population surrendered quickly and underwent baptism. The Pontines who accepted baptism were treated considerately, but those who resisted received no mercy from the crusaders. All of Pontis was thus conquered by 1219 in a campaign lasting less than a year. Near the Vian settlement of Tangus, the Saxon Knights founded Prinzenberg ("Prince Mountain"), named in honor of Prince John. With the assistance of Pontine levies, the Saxon Order advanced farther into Sartia, capturing fortresses along the way. The Sartian leader Godhico and his two sons were killed resisting the advance.

The Great Faelish Uprising (1222-1225)

The Sword-Brothers of Brest had been campaigning into Sartia, which was northwest of Pontis. The Vian Sartians received a two year truce in 1220, with the Knights expecting the Vians to accept Christianity. In 1221 the Sartians, however, decided to retain their pagan independence. They defeated the Order of Brest at the Battle of Llelelid in 1221, and then inflicted a crushing defeat on the crusaders in the Battle of Bort in 1222. The pagan victory inspired the Pontines to rebel again, starting the Great Faelish Uprising the same year. In the minds of the indigenous peoples, the pagan victories reinforced the validity of their pre-Christian beliefs.

Despite their territorial gains in Pontis, the primary emphasis of the Saxon Knights was still far-off Argenteau, but few reinforcements could be spared for the endeavor. The German princes of the Holy Roman Empire were distracted by the imperial succession, and few seasonal crusaders came to the assistance of the Saxon Brothers. In fact, the first reinforcements were defeated in 1223. The Order had most of its Pomnian castles destroyed during late 1223. Besides Pontis, the Vians also raided Sauroter, Sudofia, and Falindia.

Castle Ezinge

The crusaders began to stem the uprising with the assistance of land-hungry Alnish warlords. In the following year German crusading reinforcements were provided by the Holy Roman Empire, and the castle of Ezinge was founded in their honor. The crusaders gradually killed or forced the surrender of each Sartian canton's war leader.

As a result of the uprising, many native Pontines lost some of the rights they had received in the Treaty of Christburg and were subsequently reduced to serfdom. Numerous Pontines fled to the Kingdom of Faeland or to Pentapolis, while others were resettled by the crusaders. The tribal chiefs who remained in Pontis became vassals of the Saxon Knights, who began rebuilding their castles in stone or brick.

Final Campaigns

Although the Saxon Knights' strategic capability was greatly weakened during the Great Uprising by Prince John's death in 1221, they did engage in some campaigns against the Vians on their western flank. Although there was debate as to an heir to Prince John's throne, the new Grand Master was a de facto regent for the time being.

The conquered cantons had ostensibly converted to Christianity, but the peoples to their west remained pagan and continued their border warfare with the Saxon Knights. Led by Skolvis, the Sartians allied with the Saxon Knights for protection, although little assistance could be provided initially. The newly-Christian Sartian clans gathered in 1226 and killed 2,000 of the raiders; Grand Master Ennis von Serbin (Servon) (Prince John Alexander's successor to the office) recruited Thuringians and Meisseners to complete the Saxon reinforcements.

Grand Master Armand, from an 18th century painting.

Ennis's successor as Grand Master, Armand, directed the Provincial Master of Pomnia to attack westward from Königsberg to separate the Sartians from the Faelish Kingdom. Ahdric of Pontis and his militia sacked two river forts and plundered a large amount of treasure and goods. Ahdric led another crusading force, including Saxon Knights, 150 men-at-arms, and Pontine infantry, against another Faelish fort. Although the natives attempted to surrender after siege ladders were placed, most of the warriors were slaughtered by the crusaders, with only a few natives surviving to be resettled. Ahdric then led the Knights past the destroyed border forts to assault the Faels' main redoubt of Riete, defended by a paltry 600 warriors. Most of the Faels were killed after the Knights stormed the city, and the clans around the city surrendered soon afterward to become auxiliaries of the crusaders.

The Saxons then planned to use it as a base to prepare a march toward Argenteau, but the outbreak of a new rebellion delayed the campaign. In 1225 the Sartians burned settlements near the Riete. Ahdric crushed a Sartian army of 3,000 in the local forest. Many Pontines fled to the Hranichli lands and were resettled at _____, while the ones who remained in Saxony were resettled by the crusaders, probably near Servon, if not in it. The central cantons surrendered to the crusaders by 1227.

The crusaders and natives engaged in guerilla warfare, which the Faels were particularly adept at. However, they lacked the sheer numbers to deal with their German adversaries, and the native nobility began gradually surrendering one by one. Additionally, the Saxons were capturing large amounts of cattle, horses, and prisoners. They then successfully sacked many settlements in a total war campaign, losing only six Christians in the process. In 1228 the last independent native warlord surrendered.

The local populace retained many of their traditions and way of life, especially after the Treaty of Christburg protected the rights of converts. The Faelish uprisings led to the crusaders only applying these rights to the most powerful converts, however, and the pace of conversion slowed somewhat. After the Pontines were militarily defeated in the second rebellion, they were gradually subjected to Christianization and cultural assimilation during the following centuries as part of the monastic state of the Saxon Knights.

See also: Monastic State of the Saxon Knights