Episode 65 – The Mongol Invasion versus the Signing of the Magna Carta

From the Event bracket, we bring you one of the most brutal invasion in human history, the invasion of the Steppe people of an area north of China, the Mongols. On the other side is the signing of a document that not only changed the lives of the people of England, but would lay the groundwork of a series of papers that would bring greater power to the common man over those of kings and queens, the Magna Carta.

My primary sources for the Mongol Invasion include, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford, Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith and A History of China by John Keay. As for the Magna Carta, I used Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom by Nicholas Vincent and Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty by Dan Jones.

Mongol Siege of Baghdad
Mongol Siege of Baghdad

There are a few different Mongol Invasions in history with one being into China and Central East and West Asia, as well as Europe, and a try at Japan. My goal is to touch on a few of them and focus on the one in Europe as it has the longest effect. 

The man most responsible for the numerous invasions undertaken by the Mongols is some one we will meet in episode 72, Genghis Khan. His grandson Kublai Khan, who we will learn more about in episode 92, was the nominal head of the Mongols towards the end of their reign of terror.

Born Temujin in 1162 to a khan of a local nomadic tribe, Temur means ‘of iron’ and jin means agency of. Hence, the name Temujin means blacksmith, something much needed when dealing with a group of travelers whose main means of transportation is the horse. This reliance on the Mongolian pony as many call it, made them the best horse riders the world had seen to that point. It has been said that they could shoot an arrow through the Adam’s apple in a man’s throat from 100 yards away. This ability was to make them the most feared nomadic tribe of all time. 

Genghis Khan - Temujin
Genghis Khan – Temujin

What allowed this rag tag band of warring tribes to control the largest land mass in human history? It was the doing of Genghis Khan. He was able to get all of the Mongol tribes to bury their long-lived feuds and join together to face their numerous oppressors. They would invade Central Asia first, laying waste to any town that resisted them. Temujin would send envoys to the usually walled cities demanding their immediate surrender. When this was rejected, and at first many did, a white flag would be flown from a ger, or a yurt, a round mobile tent. If after a day, the offer of surrender was still rejected, a red flag would be flown. That meant that if you give up now, we’ll only kill the men, the women and children would be spared. Although, they would likely become slaves to the Mongol warriors and their families. If this failed, a black flag would be flown and that meant everyone would be slaughtered. 

In the beginning, many towns and heavily fortified cities thought that they could withstand the onslaught of these nomadic horse riders. What they had not counted on was that Genghis Khan had recruited Chinese engineers who were adept at building siege engines, capable of bringing down the strongest walls of that era. An example was the 1258 Siege of Baghdad, a city that was a center of Islam for around 500 years. Their walls came down even though they had surrendered after 12 days. The slaughter that ensued was staggering, a number that would not be seen until the Battle of Stalingrad in 1941. It is estimated that 2 million civilians were killed along with 300-800,000 soldiers. Mongol losses were said to be minimal.

Genghis Khan and his generals, were called homicidal warriors due to the massive swathes of depopulated regions they conquered. Iran, Iraq, Afghanastan, and other areas of the Middle East were conquered during the Mongol invasions between 1260 and 1300. Only at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, did anyone claim a military victory over the Mongols.

China was an early target to face the wrath of the invaders from the north starting with the Western Xia in 1209 before taking them down in 1227. The Mongols then defeated the Jin dynasty in 1234 and conquering the Song dynasty in 1279. Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty in China after the Song dynasty was extinguished. This was to last for almost 100 years, until its overthrow in 1368.

The most devastating of the invasions though was to focus on Europe and in particular Russia. Between 1237 and 1240, the Mongols raced through the land of the Rus and wiped out whole populations, with only two cities being spared, Pskov and Novgorod. The city of Kyiv, once the largest city in Europe, bigger than Paris, was completely wiped clean of human and animal habitation. 

Here is what a papal envoy wrote about the devastation he witnessed, “They attacked Rus, where they made great havoc, destroying cities and fortresses and slaughtering men; and they laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Rus; after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death. When we were journeying through that land, we came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground. Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing, for there are at the present time scarce two hundred houses there and the inhabitants are kept in complete slavery.”

The invasion of the Mongols was to have a lasting effect on what was to become Russia that continues to this day. It was one of the few successful invasions of Russia in their history and it is one of the reasons they became so xenophobic and untrusting of anyone outside of their country. The people of Russia were to remain under the yoke of the Mongols and their offspring the Golden Horde until 1480, a 240-year span.

Mughal Empire - 1700
Mughal Empire – 1700

South Asia, including parts of India were to fall to the Mongols. The Mughal Empire, which would rule India from the early 1500’s until the mid-1800’s, was an off shoot of the Mongols. Southeast Asia, in what is now Burma, was invaded by Kublai Khan and his men in 1277 through 1287. It was repulsed in 1301, but the peoples of the region decided it was better to pay tribute to the Mongols than to attempt to continue to fight.

Before we condemn the Mongols completely, they did open up the Silk Road for trade from China to Europe. This trade route though was partly to blame for something we discussed in episode 47, the Black Death in Europe. It was thought that the pestilence was carried through the trade routes opened up by the Mongols. 

If we look at the devastation and death tolls, not including the plague, that are attributed to the invasions of the Mongols, we come up with numbers that are beyond comprehension in modern terms. The estimations range from 20 to 57 million lives were lost between 1206 and 1400. The worlds population was thought to be between 350 and 450 million in that 200-year period. That represents somewhere around 6 to 16 percent of everyone in the world at the time dying by the hands of one enemy. At the start of 2020, there is supposedly 7.5 billion people on our planet. That would mean that to equate the loss of life caused by the Mongols at their time today, 450 million to 1.2 billion people would be killed. Sit on that for a moment. 

So how were a people who were nomads wreck such devastation upon the world? One theory is that the earth was undergoing a warming trend at the time which greatly increased the grazing lands for the vast number of horses that the Mongols employed during their reign of terror. That may be, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that their armies were the most advanced for their time, using tactics that were way superior to their enemies. Their strength was very underestimated by their opponent’s time and time again. Add to that the ruthlessness of their leaders like Genghis, Kublai, Mongke, Batu, Ogedai and others. 

What also struck me about the Mongols is how every person within the nomadic tribes had a part in their victories. The women, the children, the infirmed, and even the slaves had a hand in keeping their society and peoples together and taken care of. There is a semi-fictional series of books about Genghis Khan and his successors that is a great read, it is called the Conqueror series by Conn Iggulden. It consists of five books that are loosely based on what I’ve discussed in today’s episode. Enjoy. 

Now it’s time to head over to the other side of Europe, to an island nation that is going through major upheavals of their own, England and the steps leading up to the signing of one of the world’s most important documents, the Magna Carta. 

Magna Carta
Magna Carta

The Magna Carta Libertatum, translated as the Great Charter of the Liberties, was signed on June 15, 1215. It was meant to be a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, an area about 20 miles west of London. What we remember most about the Magna Carta is actually just a relatively small portion, namely articles 38, 39, and 40. Most of the rest of it is a bunch of rules about fisheries in the Thames River and how Gerard of Athaie and his comrades were just a bunch of jerks.

Of course, there were many other important articles within the document, namely, 16, 20, and 28, which dealt with the rights of the serfs, but for the most part, it wasn’t that monumental of a document. According to one scholar, she was surprised that the Magna Carta became such a renowned manuscript at all. 

The first issue that led up to the signing of the Magna Carta was the fact that the Duke of Normandy was a vassal of the King of France. Remember episode 26 when we discussed William the Conqueror? He was a Norman as were his successors. They ruled England but were supposedly inferior in status to the French King. This was despite being stronger militarily and economically. Quite a conundrum. 

Empress Mathilda
Empress Mathilda

Henry II, who reigned from 1154-1189, the son of William the Conquerors granddaughter Matilda, would oversee the greatest land expansion of the Norman’s, mostly in French territory. He would marry the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine. Aquitaine was a massively sized territory about as large of a land mass as all of England at the time.

Slight swerve here as Eleanor had previously been married to French King Louis VII. The marriage had been annulled though leading to her second betrothal. The lands her and Henry would hold together would be known as the Angevin Empire.

The royal pairing would have lots of sons, five to be exact. They intended to split their vast territory amongst them. The first boy died at birth, but the second and third, Henry and Richard, survived as well as son number five, John. John was the odd boy out as his older brothers got all of the real land in their parents will. For this reason, he would be called John Lackland.

Henry the Younger, as he would be known, died six years before his father did which passed the inheritance of the empire to Richard. There were lots of conspiracies that would crop up, including a revolt among the three young sons against their father, but we would have to start a whole new podcast to handle all the intrigue. The shenanigans that went on within the family and those that involved the French were mind boggling. I am reminded of the line by the grandfather in the movie “Moonstruck” – “I’m so confused.”

Richard eventually inherited the throne when his father Henry II died in 1189. Richard is known popularly as Richard the Lionheart, but another more intriguing sobriquet describes him more succinctly, Richard Oc e No, which translated from Occitan to mean, Richard Yes or No. This describes his rather terse reputation as being a man of few words. Richard is further known for his military campaigns, especially in support of the Crusades, and in particular the third one. Because of his frequent travels, he spent almost no time in England overseeing his holdings.

Another flaw in Richard’s life was having no heirs to hand the country to. This meant that the least likely of the five sons of Eleanor and Henry would become king when Richard died in 1199, John Lackland. 

John was a totally inept king, especially militarily. In short order he lost almost all of the English lands in France. Simultaneously, he was waging war in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It has always been said that it is a bad idea to conduct a war on two fronts, hell, John was fighting one on four.

War is expensive, so, in order to pay for all the fighting, John started raising taxes. You can imagine how happy he made all of his subjects. With the loss of revenue from his French holdings, John tried to squeeze as much as he could from the remaining English lands.

The system in place at the time was known as feudalism. This is a hierarchical system of loyalty and service. All land is held in “fee” from the King. Nobles hold land by the grace of their monarch, paying rent and providing services, mainly in the service of the army. They in turn “enfeoff” their land to people below them, who do the same for the nobles, and so on down the line. The bottom of the pyramid is the peasant or serf.

John pretty much pissed off the Baron’s by raising rents, which meant they had to pass it down the line to their subjects. No one would be happy with this arrangement. Thus, John needed enforcers to collect his due. This is where the sheriff’s came into play. They paid John a fee in order to have the right to collect the rents from the Baron’s. They of course were about as corrupt and avaricious as you can imagine. 

Pope Innocent III
Pope Innocent III

Also, John decided to increase the size of royal lands that could not be used by the populace to hunt for food. This created more animosity, but I guess John thought he needed more enemies at this point. In 1205, the Archbishop of Canterbury died, which led the King and newly elected Pope Innocent III to get into a tiff over who got to pick his replacement. 

The upshot was that John would be excommunicated from the Catholic Church, but more importantly, the English people were put under an Interdict. This meant that Mass could not be held, burials could not be consecrated, and baptisms could not proceed. This was far too much for the deeply religious people of England. Remember, this is centuries before the Protestant Reformation and the split from the Catholic Church that King Henry VIII initiated.

So, we have a very unpopular King John in place, hated by pretty much everybody. The first group he felt that he needed to placate to save his head was not the logical ones, the Baron’s. No, he felt that he needed to have a more powerful ally, the Church. John, inexplicably, decided to allow the Pope to have what amounted to an over lordship over England along with sending them a large, annual payment. John made England and himself a feudal vassal to the Pope.

A group of Baron’s had by this point, had enough. They gathered their troops and pressured King John to accept the rules of law that had been laid down by the Anglo-Saxon King, Edward the Confessor, confirmed by William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I. John initially refused the Baron’s demands so a civil war ensued. The Magna Carta was drawn up as John was losing his grip on power. 

On June 15, 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta at Runnymead. He claimed very soon thereafter that it was under severe duress. In reality, John never intended to abide by the rules set forth by the document. In fact, now that he was on the good side of Pope Innocent III, he had the Supreme Pontiff declare the articles null and void on August 25th of the same year. The Magna Carta was close to becoming a piece of paper with little to now value.

This infuriated the Baron’s which led to the First Barons’ War. For a while, the Baron’s enlisted the aid of the French Prince Louis, whom they promised the throne to if successful. Well, this alliance didn’t last too long as there were a lot of conflicts that arose between the two sides.

By late 1216, there was seemingly a stalemate between the two side, but fate would be on the side of the Baron’s as King John had earlier contracted dysentery, a particularly nasty disease of the day, but still causes the deaths of 1.1 million people a year today. On October 18, 1216 King John died. This opened the door for the new King, the nine-year-old Henry III, under the guidance of his protector, William Marshall, to reinstitute the Magna Carta, with some editing to become the law of the land. 

The legacy of the document was more important than the Magna Carta itself. It would be a focal point of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1682 as well as one of the influences of the American Revolution and the American Constitution of 1782. Lord Denning, who some call the greatest judge in English history, said in the mid-twentieth century that is is, “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

There are four original copies left in the world. They were brought together in February 3, 2015 in the British Library to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. 

Now is the time to head on over to the scorers table to find out which event moves on to the second round.

First off, we have the fifteen points for the number of people involved. Well, this is a complete and total win for the Mongol Invasion which involved millions of people versus a few thousand for the signing of the Magna Carta. For this reason, the steppe nomads get 15 points the British document gets 1.

Next up is the twenty points for the events effect on the rest of the world at the time. This is yet another overwhelming victory for the Asiatic invaders. They touched most of Asia and vast swathes of Eastern Europe while the Magna Carta effected the people of England and parts of France. Twenty points for the Mongol Invasion, 5 for the Brits.

Next up is the long-term effects of the event on human history. The Mongol Invasion had its greatest effect on the history of Russia, making it an Oriental/European nation. The effect on other nations was not quite as great and tended to become diluted over the years. Not so with the Magna Carta. On the contrary, it gained more influence over the centuries to where it has a far greater affect today, than its contemporary event. Twenty-five points for the Magna Carta, twelve for the Mongol Invasion.

Last, but certainly not least, is the forty points for the immediate effect the event had on the country or countries involved. While the Magna Carta had a tremendous effect on the country of England, especially after the death of King John Lackland, it pales in comparison to the immense effect of the Mongol Invasion had on the countries it touched. Millions upon millions of people perished, anywhere from 6 to 16 percent of the world’s population at the time. This alone is a staggering effect. Nations would change their culture and behavior due to the upheaval caused by the marauders from the steppe. For these reasons, I am giving the Mongol Invasion forty points with the Magna Carta receiving 30. 

The final point total is Mongol Invasion 87, the Magna Carta, 61. The invaders from the steppes of Mongolia move on to the second round where they will face off against the Development of the Atomic Bomb.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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