DARK AGES ELITE: THE CABALLARII OF CHARLEMAGNE

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This is the fourth part of our series on Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages. As Charles the Great, king of the Franks, created the first great European empire after the Fall of Rome, he surrounded himself with elite mounted warriors: in Latin, caballarii!

The Frankish Kingdom was the first to pick-up the pieces of the former Western Roman Empire; absorbing into itself several other Germanic states and tribes in the process. Under the Salian Frankish Merovingian dynasty, the Franks had driven the Visigoths out of Gaul, and created the strongest of the Germanic kingdoms. The Merovingians were replaced in the 8th century by the Carolingian Dynasty; the second king of which was Charles the Great, known to posterity as Charlemagne. This great warrior king expanded Frankish power into northern Spain, northern and eastern Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Italy and  the northern Balkans. In the process of these conquests, Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope, in 799, as Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”); heir to the Western Roman Imperium. This Carolingian Empire didn’t survive his grandsons, who divided it between them. But it became the basis for the later Holy Roman Empire.

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While the vast majority of Frankish troops of the Carolingian period were infantry spearmen (the Franks had long abandoned the use of their eponymous national weapon, the francisca throwing axe), an elite mounted component grew-up during this period around the palace of the king; and later around the great landed magnates as well. These mounted warriors were collectively called by the Vulgar Latin term for horseman, caballarius. (This is the source of the later French word chevalier and Spanish caballero; all meaning the same thing, horsemen.)

At the start of this period it was the obligation of all freeborn Franks to appear armed and ready for campaign when they received the Royal summons (bannum, or Heerbann, the army muster). But to respond to sudden, unexpected enemy incursions of Frankish lands, or to guard the person and support the authority of the king a ready body of professional warriors was necessary. This force was called the scara. These elite troops of caballarii also provided leaders for the less well trained members of the exercitus (army). Wither the scara fought mounted as true cavalry, or were mounted infantry who dismounted to fight on foot (like the later Anglo-Saxon Huscarls) is unknown. But accounts of later Carolingian and early Ottonian Frankish practice seems to indicate that these elite caballarii could do either: fight as true heavy cavalry, using shock tactics to break the enemy; or dismounting (some or all of their number) to fight on foot.

Frankish cavalry

The scara of Charlemagne were quartered near the king’s palace; and later in garrisons in key fortresses. The term scara is an imperfectly understood term; but seems to refer both to the elite mounted warriors (caballarii) who were the core of the Frankish army as a whole, and….

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