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13th Century – 7 Historical Events that took place in the 13th Century

The thirteenth-century became defined by the rise of the Mongols, who turned from warring local tribes to history’s largest contiguous Empire in seven decades. The Mongols destroyed ancient Dynasties and brought an end to Islam’s Golden Age, while Europe fought to catch up, continuing and ending their religious Crusades against the Muslim world without success. Away from the battlefield, significant information and technology were shared from East to West for the first time thanks to early European explorers, creating awareness between these previously separate worlds. In this article, learn about 7 major historical events that took place in the 13th Century (1200s).

1. The end of the big Crusades (1202-1291)

Louis IX on a ship departing from Aigues-Mortes, for the Seventh Crusade during the 13th Century.
King Louis IX of France on a ship departing from Aigues-Mortes, for the Seventh Crusade during the 13th Century.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Starting in the eleventh century, there were nine big Crusades in total, all with the goal of taking control of Jerusalem from the Muslim world. The thirteenth-century saw six of these Crusades, starting with the Fourth between 1202 and 1204 in which Europeans failed to take the Holy Land but did succeed in sacking Constantinople. Further ventures proved even less successful, including the ill-fated Children’s Crusade of 1212. There were some moments of success, but they were brief, and after two centuries of relatively mixed results, peppered with counterattacks by the superior Muslim states, the fall of Acre in 1291 ultimately led to an end in the big Crusades. The Church and European leaders would continue religious warfare for some time but would focus more on nearby heretics rather than marching to their deaths in distant lands.

2. Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan (1206)

Taizu, better known as Genghis Khan. Portrait cropped out of a page from an album depicting several Yuan emperors (Yuandjai di banshenxiang), now located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Original size is 47 cm wide and 59.4 cm high. Paint and ink on silk.
Genghis Khan.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The largest contiguous Empire the world has ever seen, at its peak in 1270 the wider Mongol Empire would control the vast majority of the Eurasian continent. After uniting feuding tribes and being acknowledged as sole ruler by the Mongols, Genghis Khan set forth with a powerful army to conquer large portions of Asia, instilling famously brutal tactics to spread fear to neighboring states. When he died in 1227, the Mongol Empire was an Asian powerhouse, and his work was continued by his successors, first by his son Ögedei who continued into Eastern Europe. After the Empire fractured in 1259 into four semi-autonomous Khanates, his grandson Kublai nominally ruled as Great Khan, creating the Yuan Dynasty in China and declaring himself Emperor.

3. The creation of the Magna Carta (1215)

The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period, authenticated with the Great Seal of King John.
The Magna Carta.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In England, after 16 years of King John’s rule of extortion, violence, and oppression of his subjects, his barons had seen enough. Joined by the bishops, who were unhappy with John’s disputes with the Pope, they began to apply pressure on the King and took London. Fearing civil war with the barons, and already weakened by a recent defeat to the French, King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215 agreeing to a more balanced form of power. No longer could the King be a law unto himself and do as he pleased, as laws we take for granted today were established, such as a subject’s protection against illegal imprisonment, fair taxing, and the idea of basic human rights.

4. The Siege of Baghdad (1258)

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258
The Siege of Baghdad.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ruling from 750 AD, even the powerful Abbasid Caliphate was no match for the advancing Mongol Empire, who laid siege to its capital Baghdad in 1258. Believing the city could not be taken, Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused the Mongols demands, but after just 13 days of siege he was forced to surrender. The ancient city was looted and destroyed, its population largely wiped out, and precious historical artifacts burned. The Caliph was killed when he was wrapped in carpet and trampled to death by horses, with the Mongols considering it taboo to spill royal blood. The destruction of Baghdad and fall of the Abbasid Caliphate (in its first form) are generally considered the end of the Islamic Golden Age. 

5. Marco Polo explores Asia via the Silk Road (1271-1295)

Mosaic of Marco Polo, Municipal Palace of Genoa: Palazzo Grimaldi Doria-Tursi
Marco Polo.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Joining his father and uncle, who were already established merchants and had traveled through Asia, Marco Polo embarked on a journey in 1271 across the famous Silk Road, chronicling everything he saw. Reaching China around 1275, the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan was impressed by Polo and appointed him as his foreign emissary. Polo lived in China for 17 years, exploring much of South East Asia, before setting off for home with his family in 1291 and arriving four years later. Polo was not the first European to reach the Far East, but he was the first to chronicle his findings in such depth, publishing them shortly after arriving home, and bringing previous unknown information and technology to the attention of Europe.

6. The Mongol’s attempted invasion of Japan (1274-1281)

Mongol Invasion Picture depicting the 13th Century invasion of Japan
Japanese Samurai Mitsui Sukenaga (right) defeating the Mongolian invasion army (left).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Following Kublai Khan’s successful invasion of the Korean peninsula, the Yuan Dynasty set their sights on Japan. When emissary’s demanding Japan’s surrender in to a vassal state were ignored, Kublai Khan prepared an invasion. It began in 1274, with the Japanese heavily outnumbered and no match for the Yuan’s technology of gunpowder and hand bombs. However, making their final stand and expecting defeat, the Samurai were saved by a storm, which blew the Yuan fleet back as they advanced, destroying and sinking many of its ships. A second, larger invasion force landed in 1281 for a second attempt, but they would meet an eerily similar fate. Again outnumbered, the Japanese were saved by a typhoon, which devastated the invader’s ships and forced commanders to retreat. The two storms came to be known as the kamikaze, or “divine wind,” and the Yuan didn’t come back a third time.

7. The First War of Scottish Independence begins (1296)

Bannockburn: Bruce Reviewing His Troops Before the Battle 13th Century
Robert the Bruce adressing troops at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the King of the Scots Alexander III died in 1286, followed by his child heir in 1290, no obvious successor remained, leading Scotland in to period known as the Great Cause. 13 families put forward a claim to the throne, and asked England’s King Edward I to arbitrate. Sensing an opportunity, Edward agreed but established himself as Lord Paramount of Scotland, forcing the appointed King John Balliol to be subservient to him. When John refused to join the English in war against France, Edward invaded Scotland in 1296 and occupied the country in retaliation, defeating them at the Battle of Dunbar and forcing John to abdicate. Unhappy with English rule, the Scottish rebellion was led by Andrew de Moray, William Wallace and the future king Robert the Bruce, although independence would not be won until 1328. 

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