Considered by most to have been the first mercenary company in Western Europe, the Catalan Company hailed from the Kingdom of Aragon in north-eastern Spain. They were raised in 1281 to engage in the War of the Sicilian Vespers, wherein Aragon sought to maintain control of Sicily and Naples against the Angevin Dynasty. After twenty years of warfare, the Peace of Caltabellotta was attained in Sicily and the residents of that island were eager to see the last of the Catalan Company. Fortunately, the commander (Rutger von Blum, also known as Roger de Flor; a former sergeant of the Knights Templar) negotiated a favourable deal with the Byzantine Emperor (Andronikos II) to aid the Byzantines in avenging their defeat at Nicomedia in July of 1302; Andronikos had reduced the army, allowing the Ottomans to overrun the countryside.

The Catalans arrived - with the assistance of Frederick III of Sicily - in September of 1303, de Flor marrying the daughter of the Bulgarian Tsar and acquiring the title of Megaduke (equivalent to an Admiral), as he had been promised. Unfortunately, though, de Flor’s history showed through; having previously charged extortionate fees to shuttle fugitives from Acre to Cyprus (using a Templar galley, no less) during the city’s fall in 1291 and having spent many years in piratical trades (notwithstanding the general disposition of the mercenaries), it is perhaps unsurprising that the Company almost immediately engaged in bloody street warfare with resident Genoese merchants. Desiring to reduce the damage wrought upon his city, the Emperor shipped them to Anatolia, where they were to assist the beleaguered city of Philadelphia which had been entirely surrounded by Turks for several years. To assist them, a contingent of Alan cavalry (survivors of Nicomedia) was provided. All did not go as planned, though. The Catalans and Alans had a falling out, culminating in the death of 300 Alans (including the chieftain’s son) and the desertion of all but 1000 others. From this point on, there was little legitimacy in the Company’s actions as they spent the months pursuant to their landing at Cyzicus in 1303 raiding the lands between Sardis, Magnesia and Ephesus. They then struck north, across the Bosporus to land at Neapolis (in Gallipoli). Swollen with 3000 Turkish horsemen and the heady sensation of success, de Flor began to aspire to creating his own version of Byzantium in Anatolia, which obviously cancelled whatever contract he may still have held with his newest nemesis.

Alan cavalrymen fell upon the Catalan Company, assassinating de Flor in April of 1305 and shattering the Company (which also suffered Genoese reprisals). Other - less successful - Byzantine attacks caused their numbers to dwindle (widely recorded as 206 horsemen and 1256 infantry) and the Company would have been utterly destroyed if not for a trickle of Aragonese and Catalonian recruits and the desertion of a number of disgruntled Turkish Byzantine soldiers. Angered by the killing of de Flor and a genocidal campaign against Aragonese and Catalonian citizens, the vaunted ‘Catalonian Revenge’ was unleashed. Now fighting under the administration of Ramón Muntaner, they defeated a large Byzantine army at Apros in 1305 (the Byzantines’ loss is generally attributed to the flight of the Alan support cavalry who were fearful of Catalan wrath). Their piratical tendencies grew stronger and from the years 1306-1307, operating from the captured city of Rhaidestos, they attempted a blockade of Constantinople (which was unsuccessful) and conducted many raids throughout Thrace. They were forced out in 1308, however, by Byzantine resistance and subsequently settled into Salonica (Thessaly), plundering Greek Orthodox monasteries at Mount Athos.

Frederick II of Sicily observed the importance of the Company as a political entity and sought to control it, sending the Infante Ferran of Mallorca to assume control of the Company. Bernat de Rocafort, one of the leaders, stood against this move and sparked an internal struggle for power against other leaders who accepted the Infante’s appointment (most notably Berenguer de Entenza, previously the leader of the company and prisoner of the Genoese, and Ferran Ximenis d’Arenós). De Rocafort prevailed, culminating in the departure of the Infante Ferran and his control of the Company. The administrator Ramón Muntaner also left, eventually coming to write the history which stands as one of the few primary sources relating to the company. Pursuant to this struggle, Rocafort offered the army’s services to Charles of Valois to assist in his claim to rulership of the Byzantine Empire; unfortunately for the former, the latter’s deputy (Thibault de Chepoy) imprisoned Rocafort and sent him to Sicily in 1309, where he died of starvation; his rule (generally thought to be very autocratic) was most assuredly over.

Surprisingly enough, they acquired another contract in 1310; their employer was Walter de Brienne, Duke of Athens - unsurprisingly, he was one of the foremost leaders of the Romanian Latin Empire, created when Frankish Crusaders usurped control of Constantinople in 1204 (during the Second Crusade). He was, therefore, one of the true Byzantine Emperor’s greatest enemies. He made the unfortunate mistake of attempting to dismiss the Catalan Company without pay (having failed to understand the purpose of a mercenary company) when peace broke out in 1311, mocking their requests. The Catalan Company had fought hard to earn their pay, capturing over thirty castles, and could not accept this. They met the Duke in battle on March 15, 1311, tricking their former employer by arraying for battle behind a recently-flooded field. The Duke’s cavalry were deceived by this tactic, becoming mired in the mud. The Catalans fell upon them, killing the Duke and a staggering amount of knights; with no other army in the Duchy, the Catalans found themselves in command of Athens and Neopatria.

Newly enfranchised, they requested that a figurehead Duke be provided by Aragon - at least eight absentee pseudo-rulers were instated over the course of the next 70 years, leaving the Company the undisputed masters of their domain for over 80 years (although they remained quite loyal to the King of Aragon). Quite characteristically of the medieval period, however, another force (the Navarrese Company, also from north-eastern Spain) moved into the area after attacking Albania alongside the Florentine army (under Nerio Acciajuoli of Corinth), attacking the long-held Duchy. The Catalan Company was defeated in 1388 at the Battle of Kaledes (also referred to as the Battle of Peritheorion or the Battle of Anastasioupolis) near Lake Vistonis, between Xanthi and Komotini. The Company was humbled and subjected to the rule of Florence until the Ottoman Empire moved into Greece in 1456.

The army included archetypal 14th century Spanish knights, jinetes (light skirmishing cavalry, armed with javelins and shields), Turkish horse archers, Catalonian Almughavars (multi-purpose troops who fought with a lengthy spear, javelins and a sword, but no shield or armour) and crossbowmen. Once they settled into the Athenian Duchy the army would also have included feudal retainers and ordinary archers. The size of the army varied greatly and depended largely on the success of its piracy; when de Flor arrived in Byzantium, he had a force of 1500 cavalry and 4000 Almughavars. They employed unique skirmishing tactics which were essentially forgotten after their defeat by the Florentines.

Sources
Internet:

  • http://www.umiacs.umd.edu/~kuijt/dba165/dba165.html
  • http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/tours/spain/h_14.html
  • http://britishbattles.homestead.com/files/balkans/greece/The_Catalans_in_Greece.htm
  • http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_Company
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