And then Sir Launcelot armed him at all points, and mounted upon his horse, and gat a great spear in his hand, and rode out at the gate. And both the hosts were assembled, of them without and of them within, and stood in array full manly. And both parties were charged to hold them still, to see and behold the battle of these two noble knights. And then they laid their spears in their rests, and they came together as thunder, and Sir Gawaine brake his spear upon Sir Launcelot in a hundred pieces unto his hand; and Sir Launcelot smote him with a greater might, that Sir Gawaine’s horse’s feet raised, and so the horse and he fell to the earth.(Chapter XXII, Book XX, Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, 1485)
Here, as so often in this late-medieval romance, two lines of armoured horse confront one another; and here too, as so often, matters are suspended to permit an iconic combat of champions.
Sir Thomas Malory (1415-1471), who composed (or compiled) this most famous account of the Arthurian legends, was born in the year of Agincourt and died in the year of Barnet. His ‘Knights of the Round Table’ are larger-than-life caricatures based on the English feudal aristocracy of the Wars of the Roses. They are the ‘computer game’ action heroes of their time.
Malory was part of a long tradition of romantic, courtly, chivalric literature. The armoured and mounted knight was at the centre of this tradition. That is because ‘the knight in shining armour’ represented the social class that was the primary audience for the genre.
But the implicit concept – a ruling class of warrior horsemen, formed in tight-knit bands of brothers, living according to a code that stressed courage, endurance, skill at arms, loyalty to one’s lord, humility and piety, manly virtue, the protection of women – the concept known as ‘chivalry’, was a myth. More precisely, it was the ideology of the feudal ruling class, not a description of either social or military realities.
It has been a myth of enduring power. It has infected literature and art for hundreds of years. Think only of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris; or, indeed, John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.
Enduring not only in fiction; also, it seems, in the historical imagination. Sir Charles Oman, the great military historian, entitles the second chapter of his monumental The Art of War in the Middle Ages, ‘Commencement of the Supremacy of Cavalry’. This, we learn, begins with the final displacement of ancient heavy infantry – the Greek phalanx and the Roman legion – by heavy horse in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
The pattern is then set for at least 750, perhaps as many as 1,000 years – until the appearance of the English longbowman, the Swiss pikeman, and the Burgundian hand-gunner brought about ‘the revival of infantry’ at some point in the later Middle Ages.
Infantry versus cavalry
None of this is really true. Infantry have always been able to supply themselves with the weapons necessary to stop cavalry. It is not difficult. If you cut long staves, sharpen them at one end, stand shoulder-to-shoulder several ranks deep, turn your sharpened staves into a hedge of levelled points – and keep your nerve – you can stop any charge of armoured horsemen.
In other words, a solid infantry ‘phalanx’ will always defeat cavalry in frontal collision.
The reason is simple enough. Horses will not hurl themselves against a solid obstruction, especially one as dangerous as a hedge of pikes.
Coming up short, the horseman then finds himself involved in a most unequal contest at close-quarters. Because of the physical mass of the horses, cavalry formations are never compact, and each horseman is liable to find himself fighting several pikemen, perhaps as many as half a dozen or more.
And whereas the pikemen (or ‘billmen’) can reach him and his horse with their weapons easily enough, he struggles to land a blow from an elevated perch in the middle of the horse: the front half of his mount separates him from his intended targets.
But there is more: the terrified and perhaps already wounded horse will be almost impossible to steady in the chaos of the mêlée; unlike the opposing foot, who, if they are good infantry, with steady nerves, ranged in depth, should hold their ground well, perhaps with growing firmness once they have survived the ‘shock and awe’ of the initial onset of heavy horse, thereafter increasingly confident they can master the situation.
This, of course, is an imaginary collision. Let us now consider the historical record.
The Battle of Hastings
In the very middle of the period supposedly defined by ‘the supremacy of cavalry’, we have the Battle of Hastings, about which, for a battle of this date, we happen to be relatively well informed, being blessed with two major contemporary sources: one written, the chronicle of William of Poitiers (c.1070); the other pictorial, the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1070s).
These two sources are broadly complementary, giving us greater confidence that we have a reliable account of the battle. The Tapestry implies a long battle in which the Normans were compelled to launch a series of mounted charges. William of Poitiers confirms this in telling detail.
He informs us that the Anglo-Saxons ‘took up their position on higher ground,’ and that they ‘at once dismounted from their horses and drew themselves up on foot and in very close order.’
This should occasion no surprise at all. The Anglo-Saxons were, of course, forming a traditional ‘shield-wall’ (scildweall), effectively a static or slow-moving medieval phalanx, of a kind well-attested in other accounts of Anglo-Saxon warfare. We are informed in an epic poem describing the Battle of Maldon in AD 991, for example, that Earl Byrhtnoth bade his men ‘form the war-hedge with their shields and hold their ranks stoutly against the foe.’
We learn something else about the character of the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall from this poem. As the Vikings closed,
They [the Anglo-Saxons] let the spears, hard as files, fly from their hands, well-grounded javelins. Bows were busy, point pierced shield; fierce was the rush of battle, warriors fell on either hand, men lay dead.
The phalanx, it turns out, was a combined-arms force, the Anglo-Saxon host including javelin-men and archers. Perhaps they were more lightly equipped men stationed in the rear ranks and shooting overhead? Or perhaps some of the heavy infantry likely to have taken station in the front ranks carried their own missile weapons? Or were attended by retainers who supported them in this way? We do not really know.
The Anglo-Saxons: combined-arms foot
William of Poitier reports the same at Hastings. Duke William ordered his foot to open the assault on the shield-wall, but, the chronicler reports,
the English resisted valiantly, each man according to his strength, and they hurled back spears and javelins and weapons of all kinds, together with axes and stones fastened to pieces of wood. You would have thought to see our men overwhelmed by this death-dealing weight of projectiles.
It seems they were. The Norman foot must have recoiled, or at least been fought to a standstill, for next we hear that the mounted knights had barged their way to the front, ‘disdaining to fight at long range’. At this point, we must allow our chronicler to speak at length, for the next passage is most telling:
The English, however, had the advantage of the ground and profited by remaining within their position in close order. They gained further superiority from their numbers, from the impregnable front which they preserved, and most of all from the manner in which their weapons found easy passage through the shields and armour of their enemies.
Thus they bravely withstood and successfully repulsed those who were engaging them at close-quarters, and inflicted loss upon the men who were shooting missiles at them from a distance.
Then the foot soldiers and the Breton knights, panic-stricken by the violence of the assault, broke in flight before the English, and also the auxiliary troops on the left wing, and the whole of the army of the Duke was in danger of retreat.
This is an extraordinary testimony to the resilience of the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall in the face of a combined-arms attack. The Normans were losing the battle.
A close-run thing
Duke William rallied his men and organised a counter-attack, the Normans apparently turning on and cutting down a large contingent of Anglo-Saxons, who, anticipating victory, had left the safety of the shield-wall and run out in pursuit of their enemies.
But the Normans were still unable to make any real impression on the main Anglo-Saxon line, it being ‘so closely massed together’ and ‘striving in particular to prevent the attackers from penetrating their ranks’.
The battle seems to have ground on: a succession of Norman attacks, but each one beaten back by an impregnable shield-wall.
So, probably late in the day, Duke William organised first one, then a second feigned retreat, each time luring part of the enemy host into precipitous pursuit, only for them to be turned upon and cut down.
Even now, though, the chronicler reports,
this army was still formidable and very difficult to overwhelm. Indeed, this was a battle of a new type: one side vigorously attacking; the other resisting as if rooted to the ground.
It is hard to judge how it ended. William of Poitiers says that ‘at last the English began to weary … [and] … the Normans threw and struck and pierced’, which comes as a disappointing finale to an account otherwise rich in insights. For surely, if anything, the Normans must have been yet more weary after all their efforts.
The Tapestry may hold the crucial clue. Showers of overhead archery perhaps disordered the Anglo-Saxon ranks and created openings into which Norman charges were able to penetrate; once pierced, the shield-wall would have lost both its physical and moral strength, especially so late in the day, when men on both sides must have been at their limit.
Or it may have been the shattering news that the King was killed – probably by an arrow – that caused the shield-wall suddenly to shatter, like a pane of glass, turning the battle into a stampede and a massacre.
The meaning of Hastings
Oman claims that the lesson of the battle was unmistakable:
The best of infantry, armed only with weapons for close fighting and destitute of cavalry support, were absolutely helpless before a capable general who knew how to combine the horseman and the archer. The knights, if unsupported by the bowmen, might have surged forever against the impregnable shield-wall… United by the skilful hand of William, they were invincible…
Well-nigh three centuries were to elapse before real foot soldiery, unaided by the cavalry arm, made another serious attempt to stand up in the open against the mailed horseman. The supremacy of the feudal horseman was finally established.
Little of this can withstand close scrutiny. The Anglo-Saxons were also equipped with missile weapons. It is not clear what useful role Anglo-Saxon cavalry might have played in the battle.
The combination of horsemen and archers was perhaps decisive in the end, though, if so, William of Poitiers certainly missed it, and a combination of spearmen and archers might have done just as well. Anyway, it is possible to imagine quite different outcomes. After all, the battle seems to have swung in the balance for much of the day, and, as Oman himself admits, ‘the knights … might have surged forever against the impregnable shield-wall.’ QED.
Nor is that all. Despite the argument sometimes advanced for a ‘supremacy of cavalry’ beginning as early as the 5th century, it now seems to begin only in the 11th. Perhaps, though, we still have two or three centuries in which feudal heavy horse dominated European battlefields – until Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314), Morgarten (1315), and Crécy (1346), victories respectively of Flemish, Scots, Swiss, and English/Welsh foot over heavy horse.
But this is not the case. It cannot be stressed enough that infantry never ceased to be the primary component of European armies. They remained so in the supposed heyday of chivalry, the 12th and 13th centuries, and this is apparent as soon as one looks at all closely at what happened on the battlefields of that time.
The English way of war
For sure, a higher proportion of mounted men is often to be seen in the battle array, with heavy horse sometimes deployed in the centre of the line as an intended primary strike-force. But this is about as much as can be said.
The military historian will search in vain for an example of a charge of heavy horse breaking solid infantry in frontal collision. Without notable exception, the tactical success of cavalry depended, in this period as in every other, on infantry being caught disordered, weakened by shot, taken in flank, or breaking up in flight.
And it is for this reason that contemporary commanders continued to rely on infantry to form the main mass of their line, more often than not dismounting most of their men-at-arms and requiring them to fight on foot.
This was the case in Henry I’s two battles in the open field in Normandy, for example, at Tenchebrai (1106) and Bremûle (1119). Indeed, the English king’s tactics anticipated those of his successors in the Hundred Years War, a matter on which Oman is no less explicit:
This skirmish [Bremûle] … distinctly reminds us of the tactics which Edward III was to employ at Crécy 200 years later. To receive a cavalry charge by a body of dismounted men-at-arms flanked by archers, while a mounted reserve remains behind to gather the fruits of the day, argues a high degree of soldiery skill on the part of the victorious commanders.
In short, even in the early 12th century, English combined-arms tactics involving heavy infantry, archers, and cavalry represented ‘a high degree of soldiery’ – compared with the clumsy feudal stupidity of French chivalry in launching frontal charges of heavy horse against solid infantry.
The Battle of the Standard
The Battle of Northallerton (aka the Battle of the Standard) on 22 August 1138 provides an equally instructive example. The English knights and militia of Yorkshire had been called out to oppose a Scottish invasion. King David’s invading army comprised mailed knights and levies from the Lowlands combined with large masses of Celtic tribesmen from Galloway and the Highlands.
The Yorkshire lords decided to dismount their knights and have them form an armoured rank along the front of their line. The more lightly equipped levies – spearmen and archers little different from King Harold’s fyrd at Hastings – presumably formed behind and on the flanks.
The Scots launched a series of ferocious charges, but each one broke up, struck by hails of arrows, and unable to break into the English line. The only notable Scottish success was an attack on the English left flank spearheaded by a few scores of Lowland knights followed by a mass of Strathclyde men on foot; but these were too few to have decisive effect, and the English soon repaired the damage to their line.
King David’s shattered columns of assault rallied on a nearby hill, standing at bay, and the Yorkshiremen declined to attack them there, allowing their enemies, in due course, to retreat in good order.
Oman was moved to comment:
Thus ended the Battle of the Standard, a fight of very abnormal type for the 12th century, since the side which had the advantage in cavalry [the English] made no attempt to use it, while that which was weak in the all-important arm [the Scots] made a creditable attempt to turn it to account by breaking into the hostile column.
The tactics of the Yorkshiremen remind us of Harold’s arrangement at Hastings, even to the detail of the central standards planted on the hill; but they had this advantage over the Saxon king, that they were well-provided with the archery in which he had been deficient.
Yet it was not ‘a fight of very abnormal type for the 12th century’. Northallerton is representative of an English way of war – heavy foot backed by shot – that had persisted from the time of the Anglo-Saxons. The addition of feudal heavy horse to the mix did not mean ‘the supremacy of cavalry’. It meant a more effective combined-arms operation, with strong armoured cavalry now available to mount flank attacks and/or break into a line once it had been weakened sufficiently.
Chivalry is the ideology of a feudal ruling class that expressed its rank and status by going to war mounted on large horses wearing full armour. It is not a description of what happened on European battlefields at any point during the Middle Ages.
French chivalry, for sure, seems to have acted on the ideology by repeatedly launching frontal charges against lines of infantry. These were never successful. Stupidity is not ‘the supremacy of cavalry’. Infantry were always ‘supreme’, cavalry always ancillary, in European warfare. Le Morte d’Arthur is myth, not history. •
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.