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by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 2003, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
One of the songs frequently heard in the bardic circles at events is the “Catalan Vengeance”. It tells the story of Spanish troops in a battle with French knights. What might not be so well known is that is basically a true story. But like an artistically done story, it doesn’t tell the whole story. This is the rest of the story.
The story does not begin in Catalonia, a region in Spain centered around Barcelona, and then connected to the Kingdom of Aragon. Nor does it begin in Greece, though much of the action occurs there. The story begins in Sicily. The uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers resulted in the Sicilian crown being given to the Aragon king. This, of course, did not sit well with the family of the previous ruler, so war was waged for twenty years. Among the Aragonese troops were a group of light infantry known as Almugavar.
Three years into the war, the original claimant, Pedro III, died. His eldest got the Aragon throne, while his second son, James, got the Sicilian throne. Six years later, the eldest died and James gained the Aragon throne, who then placed his brother Frederick as regent. But after four years, for peace, James exchanged Corsica and Sardinia for Sicily. The Sicilian did not appreciate this maneuver and so promoted Frederick to king. The Almugavar chose to fight for Frederick, and thus were branded traitors to the Aragon throne. Thus when the war finally ended in 1302 they could not go home.
Peace in Sicily did not agree with the Almugavar. But as it so happened, the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II had need of mercenaries to hold back the Turkish flood which had just taken out his latest army. Thus he readily accepted of the company’s leader Roger de Flor to come fight for him. Sailing in 39 ships were 4000 Almugavar, 1500 horseman, 1000 other infantry, and their women and children.
Upon their arrival they quickly got into fights with the local Genoese merchants and Alan mercenaries—fights that set up later tragedies, and were a constant feature of their presence. The following spring, in a series of fights relieved several cities being besieged by the Turks and chased them from the western part of the Anatolian plateau. The next year, they marched against the remaining Turkish presence and destroyed them. This occurred in front of the pass that separates the plateau from the lowlands of upper Mesopotamia, the Iron Gate of the song.
At this point, the company was recalled and they set up camp at Gallipoli. It was now that the political intrigues that had been festering made their mark. On Roger de Flor’s part, to all appearances, was attempting to claim Anatolia as a nearly independent feudal fief. Moreover, he allied himself with the Empress Irene to put her son from her first marriage on the throne of Bulgaria. These two moves would have given him almost de facto control of the empire. The emperor’s son and co-emperor, Michael, was ill-disposed to the company as it was his military failure that resulted in the company’s coming. And for the emperor’s part, he was not only dealing with an uppity subordinate, but he had no money to finish paying off the company, and had no further need for it.
These intrigues climaxed on April 5, 1305 at Adrianople. Roger had been lured there to Michael’s palace with a minimal escort. The rest of the leaders of the company smelled a trap, but Roger insisted on going. Why is one of those mysteries of history. After several days of feasting and discussions, trap was sprung. After the Byzantines had retired, the Alans burst in killing Roger and the Catalans there. This was done to revenge the Alan’s leader’s son, who was killed in that first clash with the company. Byzantine soldiers killed most of the rest of the escort, though some were captured, but later died in a dramatic attempt to escape.
The Byzantines misjudged the Catalans in thinking that this dramatic stroke would cause them to slink away. It had the opposite effect. They began a campaign of revenge whose memory would last for centuries. Among the Greeks, the word Catalan holds as much horror as the word Nazi does today. And to call down the “Catalan vengeance” was the worst possible curse.
For two years the company scourged the area around the Bosporus. Only in the walled cities did the Greeks had a modicum of safety as the Catalans had no siege equipment. The Byzantine army sent against them was wiped out. They tracked down the Alans and virtually killed every last one of them. Finally, driven by the fact that they had made the area a virtual desert, they moved west to Thessaly where they continued their vengeance. It was here that they met with a general that could check and they were compelled to move south, where they found a new employer.
The Duke of Athens, Gautier de Brienne, was the descendant of the Burgundian leader of the Fourth Crusade. He saw the chaos created by the Catalan company as an opportunity to expand his holdings, and the company as the means. So the summer of 1310 saw the company help capture some 30 castles in central Greece for the duke. But at the end of the campaign, the duke saw no reason to give the company the rest of its pay or allow it settle in the area. The company spent a miserable winter in the mountains. In the spring, they came down for a reckoning.
The Battle of Kephissos, fought on March 15, 1311, should be listed along with Falkirk, Courtrai, Bannockburn, and to a lesser extent Crecy and Agincourt. Heavy armored cavalry charging undersized infantry whose front was protected by a morass. All with the same results: the cavalry was slaughtered. The battle site is in a basin drained only by the limestone caverns beneath. The night before the battle, the company reopened the channels that regularly flooded the plain. The duke gathered all his feudal forces, some 700 knights, 2300 other cavalry, and 12000 infantry. The company numbered 3000 with 500 cavalry. Another 2000 Turkish auxiliaries stood nearby, unsure if the battle was really a trap for them. As the French forces began to be slaughter, they joined in.
The song implies that there was a line of spearmen in front of the main line at the edge of the marsh, and that the French made at least two charges. This is unsupported by the period descriptions of the battle. These reports put a single charge in which the horses quickly floundered and the French resistance collapsed. While the company casualties go unmentioned, they do not appear to by heavy. The five gold rings of the song were bought cheaply.
While the song ends with the battle, the story of the company continues. Kephissos can be compared with yet another battle; that of Hattan which ended the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In each, the leadership and fighting force was completely eliminated, and further resistance was impossible. The Catalan Company found themselves the rulers of the Duchy of Athens.
The story immediately takes a strange twist. In the years since the murder of Roger de Flor, the company gradually lost, usually through death or betrayal, all its gentlemen leaders. Realizing that a leader from the peasant class would not be recognized, they cast around for a leader with the proper statue. Not all the French knights were killed, several had been saved because they had dealt fairly with the company in the past. So they set one of these knights as their leader. They then appealed to Frederick of Sicily to be the sovereign lord and grant them a proper ruler. Thus Greece became an Aragonese possession.
There is no happy ending though. While the son of the duke made an attempt to gain back his inheritance, as well as the Byzantines, these were easily beaten back. The collapsed of the Duchy of Athens came from a different quarter. The prosperity of the Duchy came from trade, particularly of textiles. After the company captured Athens, many of the weavers moved to Sicily or Aragon. More critically, Frederick gave no measurable support to his new holding, nor did nominal dukes make even a token appearance in the duchy. Worse, in a treaty signed in 1319, to appease the Venetians for the acts of piracy by the company, mothballed the Catalan trading fleet. By 1380 the Duchy was a shell, and the company in disarray. A new mercenary group, the Navarrese Company entered the scene in 1378. And in the employ of the son of a Florentine banker, Nerio Acciajuoli, began to wear down the company. On May 2, 1388, the last Catalan stronghold, Athens, fell. And the story of the Catalan Company comes to a close.
The story of the Catalan Company is a dreary tale of violence, barbarity, and self aggregation. There were no heroes, no winners, and everybody acted badly. And their impression on history transitory. The time they gained for the Byzantine Empire in pushing the Turks off the Anatolian plateau was taken back with their vengeance. The fearlessness and aggression that served them so well on the battlefield, made enemies of those whom they lived with off that field. In the end the only legacy of the Catalan Company is the memory of destruction.
The Chronicle of Muntaner. Trans. Lady Goodenough. London: Hakluyt Society, 1921
Lowe, Alfonso. The Catalan Vengeance. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.
Setton, Kenneth M. Catalan Domination of Athens, 1311-1388. 2nd ed. London: Variorum, 1975.
Copyright © 2003 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.