ELITE WARRIOR OF THE DARK AGES: NORMAN KNIGHT

In the 11th century, no warrior stood taller than the knights of Normandy. Esteemed as the most dangerous heavy cavalry in Europe, the Normans ventured forth from their northern French duchy to carve out realms from the Scottish Lowlands to the Euphrates River.

Either serving as prized mercenaries in foreign service or following the banners of their own intrepid leaders, the devastating charge of Norman cavalry gained victory on a myriad of battlefields.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 876 a Viking chieftain named Rollo arrived in northern France, raiding along the Seine Valley. The origins of this leader are disputed. He is claimed by both Denmark and by Norway. The most likely identity of Rollo is found in Norwegian and Icelandic sources, where he is called Ganger Hrolf (Hrolf, “the Walker”, so-named because he was reputedly too tall to ride a horse), a son of Rognvald Eysteinsson,  Earl of Møre in Western Norway.

These sources say that Rolf was forced to leave Norway by the new (first) king of that country, Harald Fairhair. Arriving in France, he spent decades campaigning with other Viking bands till, in 911, the French King Charles the Simple bought him off by ceded to him a domain situated around the town of Rouen; in return for Christian baptism and homage as a vassal of France. This grant of land became the germ of the Duchy of Normandy.

A story is told of the homage ceremony between Rolf (who took the baptismal name of Robert) and King Charles, that is illustrative of the future turbulent relationship between the Dukes of Normandy and their titular lords, the Kings of France. According to legend, the ceremony of homage required Rolf to kiss the foot of King Charles. Mounted on his horse, the king rode up to where Rolf stood and extended his foot. Rolf took the foot in hand and raised it to his mouth, in the process causing the king to tumble from his saddle onto the ground; much to the merriment of Rolf’s rough-humored Viking followers! (Another version of this story has the Frankish king seated on a chair, and Rollo having a follower kissing the foot of the king in his stead; up-ending Charles in the process.)

Rolf/Duke Robert expanded his domain in all directions; giving lands to his Viking followers in return for fealty in the process. These new lords of the land, who came to be known as “Normans”, adopted Carolingian feudalism wholesale. By the time he died in 932, the 86 year old Rolf/Rollo/Robert had created a strong feudal Duchy that stretched from Brittany to Flanders, and south to the borders of Maine. His heirs continued his policies, and by 1050 the Norman Duchy was militarily the strongest in France; independent in all but name.

Marrying local French wives, by the second generation French had become the language of the Normans. However, though these Norse and Danish newcomers gave up their language and their longships, they had lost little of their Viking spirit. Taking to horseback, they soon mastered the tactics of Frankish heavy cavalry; and perhaps improved upon them. Within a century, Norman adventurers were taking their swords to fight for pay in foreign armies, where their services were in high demand. They also became militant supporters of the Catholic Church; in Italy becoming the Popes greatest ally against the German Emperor.

The hallmark of this new Norman race was boundless energy, courage, cunning, a strong capacity for leadership, and ferocity in battle. As with their Viking ancestors, the Normans had a keen commercial sense as well; and wherever they planted their banner their domains prospered. The Normans also had a pragmatic tolerance for the customs of those they conquered. So long as taxes were paid and feudal obligations observed, the Normans were usually just and fair rulers; preferable in many cases to those they replaced.

The strong walls of Caen Castle, built by William the Conqueror. Though much of the castle was leveled by bombing and bombardment during the Second World War, the remaining battlements are still impressive.

Though Norman armies were a balanced fighting forces of cavalry, heavy infantry and archers (or crossbowmen); and Norman tactics (as we shall see) emphasized combined arms, it was the power of their heavy cavalry that made the 11th century the Norman Century.

The heart of the Norman cavalry was the Norman knights. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess and historian, wrote that the charge of a “Frankish knight” was so powerful they could “pierce the walls of Babylon”. Her reference was based upon Byzantine experience with the Normans (Byzantines and Saracens alike tended to call all western Europeans “Franks”, regardless of ethnicity); so she is clearly speaking of these formidable fighting men.

Sometime between the 10th and 11th century, two changes occurred in cavalry equipment among the Franks (and Normans) that greatly increased their effectiveness. The first had to do with the saddle, and the stirrup attached to it. During this period, the front and back of the saddle grew higher; providing the knight with more support upon impact when charging with his lance, and a more secure seat when being struck. The stirrups grew longer, allowing the knight to stand rather than sit in the saddle. This was particularly important when striking with a sword, particularly in a downward motion against infantry. These improvements in horse furniture encouraged the second innovation, this one a weapon’s technique that would revolutionize cavalry warfare.

 

Since ancient times, the cavalry lance had been a thrusting or throwing weapon. The horseman so equipped either hurled it at the enemy before impact; and then continued to fight with sword, mace or axe. Or he retained it in hand and used it as a thrusting spear; either under-handed or overhand (and sometimes even two-handed, sans shield).

However, sometime during this period the lance began to be couched under the arm, pressed firmly between arm and side. This is familiar to most today as the classic “jousting” technique. However, it was one that only became possible by the invention of the high-backed saddle and long stirrups. Since it first came into use during the “Norman Century”, it is tempting to suppose a correlation between the invention of this technique and appearance of the Norman knight. Perhaps the reason the Normans became the premiere heavy cavalry and dominated the battlefields of 11th century Europe was their pioneering of this effective technique. (Though it should be noted that even up till the Battle of Hastings in 1066 most Norman knights were still using an overhand thrusting or throwing technique; so the couched-lance method didn’t come to predominate until the 12th century.)

These miniatures show the two primary lance techniques used by the Norman knights. The three figures on the top row demonstrate the traditional, overhand method; using the lance as a thrusting or throwing weapon (the most common method used in the 11th century). The bottom row of figures are using the couched-lance technique, which came into common usage in the early 12th century; and may have been pioneered by the Normans.

As a secondary weapon, the knight carried a broadsword. When the lance had broken or been thrown, the knight drew this and used it to good effect. At Hastings, William’s troubadour-knight, Taillefer, rode ahead of the Norman first charge at Hastings; singing verses from the Song of Roland and tossing his sword into the air and catching it repeatedly; all at a cantor or gallop! An example of superb sword handling and juggling skills at the same time, not to mention horsemanship.

For defense the Norman knight wore a mail hauberk that covered his torso, extending to his knee; and covering at least his upper arms. Over the 11th century, the sleeves grew longer, and by the mid-12th century most well-armed knights had added mittens of mail and chausses (pants) of mail as well. For active defense, a kite-shaped shield covered his left side from shoulder to shin.

The equipement of a Norman knight in 1066

A horseman is only as good as his mount. The horses ridden by the Norman knights were fine animals, whose size and proportions can be judged by the Bayeux Tapestry and other depictions; as well as skeletal remains from this period. The animals stood between 15 and 16+ hands; and weighed approximately 1,500 lbs. These were not much different in size or weight than the heavy cavalry mounts used by British cavalry at the time of Waterloo. Unlike the great draft horse often depicted in films, the destrier of the Norman knight were no ponderous, clumsy beast.

These warhorses were used only in battle; smaller, more docile “palreys” being ridden for other occasions. The destrier was usually a stallion, fierce powerful and headstrong. Trained for war, these were just as dangerous to a foe as their rider; biting, kicking or trampling an enemy. The terrific impact of a charging Norman knight, as described so picturesquely by Anna Comnena, came from the combined weight of a 250lbs knight in mail hauberk, mounted upon 1,500lbs of galloping stallion; all the force of which was massed behind a tightly couched, 9 foot lance. Few warriors could withstand the charge of Norman knights in tight formation.

From an 11th century manuscript, depicting William Marshal, the greatest knight of his age. Note the high back and front of the saddle, the straight legs in the long stirrups, and the couched lance technique: all of which contributed to the effectiveness of the Norman knight in the charge.  

There seems to have been two status of knights: those who owed fealty and service in return for land; and those who fought for wages. The former, called milites, were considered to be in the more “honorable” arrangement, and therefore more prestigious than that of the paid stipendiarii. However, this distinction held slight social significance; and in fact early knighthood held less social status than it would come to hold in the later Middle Ages. Knights were the professional fighters of the Norman world, and the honor was conferred with little of the pomp and circumstance of later centuries.

Norman knights trained in small groups of 5 to 10 horsemen. These, in turn…

(To continue reading go here)

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