A Countdown Through History's Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors

D.G. Hewitt - October 21, 2018

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
The Holy Roman Emperor chose 12 men to be his best soldiers and bodyguards. Pinterest.

9. The Paladins of Charlemagne were hand-picked by the Holy Roman Emperor himself to protect him and to keep order across the Empire

Also known as the ’12 Peers’, the Paladins were a dozen men, hand-chosen by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to be by his side, both in his royal court and in battle. Over the centuries, myths and history have become blurred. So much so, in fact, that much of what we think we know about the Paladins is hotly disputed. Indeed, there may not even have been 12 of them. However, despite the lack of consensus, the Paladins are widely remembered as being Charlemagne’s bravest, most reliable men, who helped secure several notable military victories for their ruler.

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, served as King of the Franks from 768 and then as the Holy Roman Empire from 800 until his death in 814. During the Early Middle Ages, he united large parts of western and central Europe, bringing the Christian faith to large parts of the continent. He was a model knight, fully subscribed to the idea of chivalry, and he wanted men around him that believed in it, too. Around the turn-of-the-century, he selected 12 men to be his Paladins. As well as being his bodyguards, they were also his closest advisers, both in military matters as well as in matters of the state.

According to writings from the time, most notably from The Song of Roland, the Paladins were excellent soldiers as well as thinkers. Most notably, at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, the Paladins fought with distinction to protect Charlemagne from a Basque ambush. While the forces of the Holy Roman Empire were defeated – the king’s only military defeat – the 12 Paladins ensured that Charlemagne himself got away unscathed. One of their number, a Frank named Roland, was killed that day. From that point onwards, their legend just grew and grew. In fact, some scholars believe that the myths of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table grew out of tales of Charlemagne and his fearsome and wise Paladins.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
Berserkers ran into battle howling like animals and frothing at the mouth. Pinterest.

8. The Berserkers went into such a frenzy in the heat of battle that even their fellow Viking soldiers were scared of them

In Norse folklore, no warrior was more feared – and sometimes even admired – than a Berserker. While all Norse warriors were known for their strength, bravery and skill with a sword, these men were of a whole different level. According to the legends, they ran wild-eyed and naked into battle. They fought with no regard for their own safety and would happily thrown themselves into a fight against many men. What’s more, they were reputed to have had the strength of several men – or, perhaps one bear, which might be where the name came from.

Neither historians nor archaeologists have found much evidence that will give us a fuller understanding of just who these crazy warriors were. It’s believed that they worshiped bears and then the Norse god Odin. What made them go berserk isn’t known. However, sources from the time tell us that they would throw off their chain mail and other armor when they ran into battle, both confusing and terrifying the enemy. They would also froth at the mouth and then howl like a wild animal as they threw themselves into the fight.

Being a Berserker was something of a family trade. Fathers passed down the tradition to their sons, and sometimes who families could be Berserkers. They would then fight in tight-knit groups. Their ferociousness, as well as their loyalty to one another, made them a favorite of Norse kings and they would often be used as royal bodyguards. But despite their loyalty, some contemporary observers noted that, when they were in a frenzy in the heat of a battle, Berserkers couldn’t distinguish friend from foe, making them as dangerous to their own side as they were to their enemies.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
The bodyguards of the pharaohs were recruited from one nomadic tribe. Pinterest.

7. The Medjay of Ancient Egypt used their unique knowledge of the deserts and their skills with bows to become the bodyguards of the pharaohs

The Medjay of Ancient Egypt all wore badges on their tunics. On those badges was the Eye of Horus, a symbol that they were not only the sworn protectors of the pharaohs but of the souls of all of Egypt’s people. Their elevated standing in the ancient society was well-deserved. Not only were they highly-skilled fighters, they were also completely loyal, trustworthy and highly disciplined traits that helped them evolve from part-time bodyguards to full-time police and moral guardians of the nation.

It was during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, between 2050 BC to 1710 BC, when the Medjay started making a name for themselves as feared warriors. From the region of the same name, now divided between modern-day Egypt and Sudan, they were traditionally nomadic herders. This meant they not only knew the deserts well, they were also hardy, hard-working and able to protect themselves and their livestock from raiders. At some point, then, they started being employed by pharaohs as bodyguards, scouts and shock troops. According to archaeologists studying the period, Kamose, the last king of the 17th Dynasty, made full use of the Medjays’ formidable skills on the battlefield to beat the Hyskos people and transform Egypt into true military power.

Over time, the Medjays had abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. By the time of the 18th Dynasty, they were employed as an elite paramilitary force. As well as serving as the pharaohs’ bodyguards, they also protected royal cemeteries, tombs, temples and other sites of religious significance. At some point between then and the start of the 19th Dynasty, the role was opened up to people from outside the Medjay region. And then, by the 20th Dynasty, the Medjay disappear from the surviving records for good.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
The Janissaries were forced to swear allegiance to the Sultan and to live a celibate life. Wikimedia Commons.

6. The Janissaries were Europe’s first standing army, hired by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to protect him and forced to live a life of sacrifice and celibacy

Up until the 14th century, there were no real standing armies in Europe; instead, men would just be called up to fight as and when a king or lord needed them. Once a war was over, the men returned to their normal life. The Janissaries changed all this. They were not only the first modern standing army in all of Europe, they were also some of the most-disciplined soldiers the world had ever seen. Attached to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, they were subject to strict rules and regulations, making them reliable bodyguards and formidable opponents on the field of battle.

The Janissary unit was established towards the end of the 14th century. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Murad I, ordered that a group of Christian men taken as prisoners of war be converted to Islam and then serve as his personal soldiers. He was so impressed with the results of his little project that he ordered that it be repeated. So, whenever they got the opportunity, troops of the Ottoman Empire would take young Christian boys, usually from the Balkans region, make them convert, and then train them as soldiers.

Following on from the reign of Murad I, the unit grew in size and in strength. The Janissaries became known as the Sultan’s most reliable fighting unit. They were known for their bravery and their speed. In a battle or siege, they would wait for the frontline troops to pierce a hole in the enemy’s defenses and then they would attack, swarming in and showing no mercy with their bows or muskets. Such a tactic was particularly effective during the siege of Constantinople in 1453, and it also enabled the Ottoman Empire to defeat the Egyptian Mamluks – themselves an elite group of warriors – in 1467.

To maintain their discipline, Janissaries were forbidden from taking romantic partners. They were forced to live a life of celibacy. Moreover, they were expected to devote their lives, and their deaths, to the Sultan himself. In return, they were granted elevated status in the Empire, along with good pay and other benefits. Despite the celibacy rule, many regular soldiers and then civilians wanted to be part of the unit. By 1826, Sultan Mahmud II, anxious that the corps had forgotten its original purpose, had it disbanded. To make sure it was finished for good, he had more than 6,000 Janissaries executed.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
The English longbowmen were capable of raining death down on their cowering enemies. YouTube.

5. The Wells Longbowmen were the most feared soldiers of 13th century Europe and helped the English Army to victory in a number of historic battles

In 12th and 13th century Europe, perhaps no soldier was feared more than English longbowman. And, above all, the Wells Longbowmen, named after the small cathedral city in the west of England, was the most feared of all. While they may sometimes have been recruited from the peasantry, they were supremely well-drilled and disciplined. They were also incredibly good at their job – so good, in fact, that they are credited with being the decisive factor in several major battles.

In Medieval England, peasants were often required by law to practice their archery skills once a week. Nobles would also be handy with a bow, honing their skills on target ranges and on hunting excursions. So, when the Hundred Years War broke out, the King was able to draw on a large number of skilled bowmen. The best of these were hired on full-time contracts, including the Wells Longbowmen. Being a bowman was soon seen as having a proper profession. And, once the English Army was sent to France, the bowmen were suitably rewarded for their extra work, earning more than all the other soldiers.

It’s believed that the Wells Longbowmen, being the best in the English Army, could shoot an arrow with enough power to penetrate the chain mail armor of an enemy soldier stood some 300 meters away. The English put this to good use. Their historic victories at Crecy and Poitiers were largely thanks to the bowmen. But the Wells Longbowmen’s finest hour came at the Battle of Agincourt in October 1415. There, a force of 9,000 English soldiers commanded by King Henry V defeated 30,000 French soldiers. At the end of that famous day, as many as 10,000 enemy troops lay dead, many of them killed by the longbowmen, with just 400 English troops have lost their lives.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
10,000 men made up the Immortals, and each dead warrior was immediately replaced. Weapons and Warfare.

4. The Immortals of Cyrus the Great were an elite unit of soldiers that could never be diminished in size or strength – until Alexander the Great came along, that is

The first Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, dominated large parts of Western Asia and Eastern Europe for almost 200 years – hardly surprising given that it could count on an elite group of warriors known as ‘The Immortals‘. They were armed to the teeth and adept in a range of combat situations. What’s more, for every member the enemy killed, another man of equal strength and skill was ready to step in to take his place. As the ancient historian Herodotus noted, they were a unit that never lost its strength, hence their legendary nickname.

Cyrus the Great established the Achaemenid Empire in 552 BC. Under him, it grew to cover a massive 5.5 million kilometers, winning territory and conquering numerous different peoples through a combination of diplomacy and military might. The Immortals played a big part in this. The unit, which was always 10,000-men-strong, was made up of the Empire’s very best warriors. They were kitted out with bronze breastplates and helmets. Even their horses had bronze armor. Each soldier was equipped with a number of weapons, each of which he knew how to use well. In addition to a sword, they would carry a large dagger, a spear, a sling and a bow and arrow.

According to Herodotus, the Immortals served both as the King’s bodyguard as well as the Empire’s elite shock troops. They traveled the Empire far and wide fighting its enemies. They even had their own caravan, carrying not only their food and supplies but also a large number of concubines for their pleasure. Over the years, the unit’s commanders became increasingly powerful, even becoming the king’s most trusted advisors, and not just on military issues.

The Immortals fought with distinction in several of the most important battles of the period. They helped Darius I invade parts of modern-day India and Pakistan in 520BC, helped their Empire expand into Egypt in 525 BC and were even there at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. However, even the Immortals were no match for Alexander the Great. The military genius defeated them in 330 BC, effectively bringing the Achaemenid Empire to an end.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
Viking warriors served as feared mercenaries for more than 400 years. Ancient Origins.

3. The Varangian Guard were Viking mercenaries who fought ferociously for the Byzantium Empire for more than 400 years

Mercenaries, soldiers fighting for money rather than for any notion of loyalty or patriotism, have been around as long as warfare itself. However, the Varangian Guard was different. By any standard, they were soldiers-for-hire. Though they were Norse or Scandinavian, they fought and died in Byzantium. But what sets them apart from other mercenaries is that they did so for centuries. Indeed, for more than 400 years, soldiers of the Varangian Guard were among the most respected warriors in the whole world, renowned for their loyalty just as much as they were for their bravery.

In the 9th century, Swedish Vikings had made their way up the rivers of modern-day Russia, establishing trade links. Before long, some of these traders had switched from selling goods to selling their skills as soldiers. In 988, the Byzantine Emperor Basil II established the Varangian Guard as his own personal bodyguard. He chose the men almost exclusively from the ‘Rus’ (or ‘foreign’) people who had settled in the region. Then, over the years, as the Vikings conquered modern-day Britain, the ranks of the Varangian Guard were swelled with Anglo-Saxons, as well as Germanic warriors.

From Basil II onwards, the Emperors made full use of their elite fighting unit of foreigners. The men’s long hair and red cheeks made them stand out for the usual soldiers, while their tall and broad stature and formidable weaponry struck fear into the hearts of the Empire’s enemies. The Varangians often wore full body armor, even though it was heavy and they preferred huge axes that needed both hands to wield to swords or spears. Thanks to them, Basil II won successes in Georgia and across the Levant. They also helped defeat pirates and sea and served as guards for caravan trains. However, despite earning a formidable reputation and even becoming respected members of society, the men of the Varangian Guard were never given any political power or say in how things were run. Instead, they just accepted money and other favors for their soldiering services, making them the longest-serving military forces in all of history.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
Shaolin Monks were sometimes far from peaceful, but instead were warriors for hire. Pinterest.

2. Shaolin Monks were the fathers of modern martial arts and used their fighting skills in the service of Emperors before being persecuted

Far from being peaceful, pacifists, monks have long been capable of violence. For thousands of years, right across China and India, for example, travelers and holy men would often learn some sort of self-defense in order to protect themselves from bandits of wild animals. But no men of God have been quite so adept at using their hands and feet than the legendary Shaolin Monks. It was with them, in around 527 AD, that king fu was first practiced, giving birth to the various martial arts of today.

According to the legends, martial arts have been practiced in China for more than 4,500 years. However, when the Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province of China in 527 AD, he discovered that the men there enjoyed no exercise at all. To remedy this, he introduced a series of physical exercises. Combined with the teachings of Buddhism, these laid the foundations for kung fu. Before long, the Shaolin monks had earned a formidable reputation for their fighting skills. Not only were they known for their strength, speed and flexibility, their ability to tolerate high levels of pain also became the stuff of legend.

Over the following years, the monks were called upon by numerous political figures or clans to put their fighting skills into action. In the 7th century, for example, 13 Shaolin Monks helped Emperor T’ai Tsung rescue his son from a rogue general. For their valuable help, the monks were rewarded with a large amount of land. However, when the Qing Dynasty overthrew the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the new rulers of China decided to clamp down on the warrior monks. Temples were destroyed and hundreds of monks were executed. Only a handful of elder teachers escaped the purge. They were forced into hiding, though they managed to pass on their combat skills to new generations of student monks, ensuring their legacy is preserved to this day.

A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors
The Companions of Alexander the Great rode beside him as he conquered the world. Pinterest.

1. Alexander the Great’s Companion Cavalry were recruited from the upper classes of society to ride into battle alongside the great military leader

Alexander the Great is widely regarded as one of the finest military minds who ever lived. But he was more than just a tactician, happy to dictate the course of a battle from the safety of the rear. The Macedonian leader was always in the thick of the action. He would ride into battle positioned on the right wing of his army. Surrounding him in this place of honor was his Companion Cavalry. These were young men recruited from the upper echelons of Macedon society.

In all, around 1,800 men fought as Companions. The elite unit was divided into eight squadrons. Each of these would be made up of men from the same part of Macedon – for instance, from Amphipolis or from Bottiaea. It was believed that this would help create a strong bond between the soldiers, making them even stronger in battle. The individual squadrons would move forward in wedge formations, with finest and fiercest fighters at the front. According to military historians both then and now, this tactic allowed Alexander to pierce his enemy’s defenses more effectively. Once a breach had been made, the rest of the unit could pass through and then attack the enemy from both the front and the rear.

The most important of these was the Royal Squadron. This was composed of the 300 best and most loyal men. Alexander himself would ride at the head of this group, so he needed to be able to rely on them to keep him safe in the heat of battle. As might be expected the Companion Cavalry rode the very best horses and each man received the finest available weaponry. Each was armed with a xyston, a long spear most probably held with both hands. And then, for close-quarter combat, the Companions had two swords, one for cutting and thrusting and one for slashing.

The Companions were a formidable, often decisive, military force. Under Alexander’s direct command, they were behind most of the Macedon Empire’s victories in Asia, such as at the Battle of Issus. Plus, they were also credited with delivering success in the Balkans. For their service, they received a generous share of the bounty of war, though, since many of them were already wealthy, the honor of serving alongside Alexander and helping him conquer almost all of the known world may well have been reward enough.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

History Collection – 10 of the Strangest Military Units in History

Medium – 5 Things You May Not Know About the Praetorian Guard

History of Yesterday – The Praetorian Guard — Power, Greed, and Terror

“Queen of the Celts: Rome’s Batavian Allies.” The Avalanche Press.

“The Sacred Band of Thebes: an elite unit of the Theban Army.” The Vintage News, March 2017.

“Mongol Kheshig: Mongol Bodyguards.” Warriors and Legends.

“Ninja: Japan’s Secret Warriors.” Unmissable Japan.

“Ancient Commandos: 11 Elite Forces from Antiquity.” Military History Now, February 2015.

ThoughtCo – Satsuma Rebellion: Battle of Shiroyama

History Collection – How the Byzantines Fell at Constantinople in 1453

“Aztec Eagle and Jaguar Warriors,” Warriors and Legends.

“A Brief History of Samurai.” Mark McGee, The University of Michigan.

“Who and what were Viking berserkers?” History Extra, August 2018.

“Why was the Longbow so effective?” Medievalists.net, October 2015.

Outlook India – The Shaolin Temple and Indian Monks!

History of Fighting – Bodhidharma and the Beginnings of Kung Fu

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