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 knights of Normandy were famed for the devastating power of their charge on battlefields across Europe and the Middle East. It is ironic that the origins of the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the 10th and 11th century can traced to raiding bands of sea-roving Vikings.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a Viking chieftain named Rollo arrived in 876 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”), son of Rognvald Eysteinsson, Jarl of Møre in Western Norway.
These sources say that Rolf was forced to leave Norway by the 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; this in return for Christian baptism and Rolf’s 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 Rolf having a follower kissing the foot of the king in his stead, and this fellow 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 came to be known as “Normans”, and 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 replaced Norse as 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. Replacing their ships with horses, 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 dauntless 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, often 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 bombardment during World War 2, 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 Komnene, the Byzantine princess and historian, wrote that the charge of a “Frankish knight” was so powerful he 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 Normans (and Frankish cavalry in general) 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 equipment 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, formed elements of the main tactical unit: the conroi of 20-30 men. These trained to charge as a unit, in very close order; to maneuver, to wheel, to change formation, and even to used the sophisticated tactic of the “feigned flight”. Each conroi maintained its integrity and cohesion on the battlefield by forming around a unit gonfalon, under the command of a senior knight or minor lord to whom all owed fealty. It was the cohesion and flexibility of these small, tight wedges of Norman cavalry on the battlefield that made the Normans so effective a fighting force.
Norman knights riding in close order. Groups of 5 to 10 horsemen trained together as a tactical unit, as depicted here.
Land in Normandy was too scarce to meet the needs of the growing military manhood. By very early in the 11th century second sons were venturing to other lands in search of employments. Many ventured south to Italy, where they succeeded in carving out a new Norman duchy under the d’Hauteville dynasty; and eventually in the Holy Land, where they ruled the Principality of Antioch (see below). Following Duke William the Bastard’s successful invasion and conquest, the Normans became the ruling barons of England. All over the land, motte-and-bailey forts grew up; bases from which Norman garrisons controlled the land.
Motte-and-Bailey forts sprang up rapidly wherever the Normans went; helping them to hold down their conquests with relatively few soldiers. These fortifications were made of wood (improved over time, rebuilt in stone), situated on a raised earthwork called a motte. They were accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, which was in turn surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. Relatively easy to build with unskilled, often forced labour, these forts were militarily formidable; and often grew into great castle complexes over time (bottom image).
In 1169, a Norman Army invaded Ireland, intervening in an internal power struggle in Leinester. Led by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (nicknamed “Strongbow“), a Welsh Marcher Baron, Strongbow’s army of Norman knights supported by Welsh longbowmen proved irresistible. In 1171, de Clare’s liege lord, King Henry II of England arrived in Ireland with another army. This began the English domination of Ireland that would endure, to one degree or another, through most of its subsequent history.
Interestingly, the eastern portion of Ireland under the control of the Anglo-Norman conquerors became known as The Pale. This was, for the English, the “civilized” part of Ireland; while the area beyond was the land of the savage “Bog Irish”, to whom all sorts of barbaric behavior was attributed. To this day, uncouth or unacceptable behavior can be referred to as “beyond the pale”.
In all of these campaigns, from 1066 to Strongbow’s battles in Ireland, as well as the campaigns of the Normans in Italy and the East (see below), the Normans triumphed in part because of their use of combined arms tactics. The combination of shock provided by the powerful charge of Norman heavy cavalry, with the missile attack of archers or crossbowmen proved irresistible in every major battle of the Norman Era.
THE NORMANS IN ITALY
According to Amatus of Montecassino, Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem in 999 called in at the port of Salerno in time break a siege by Saracens from North Tunisia. These Normans fought so valiantly that Prince Guaimar III requested they stay and take service. Though these demurred, they offered instead to tell others back home of the prince’s offer. Thus began the Norman involvement in the south of Italy; first in the service of the various Lombard princes, and later as conquistadors carving out their own duchy.
In 1016 a party of some 250 Norman adventures came as pilgrims to the shrine to Michael the Archangel at Monte Gargano. They were led by a group Gilbert Buatère and his four brothers. While there, they were persuaded by the Lombard prince, Melus of Bari, to join him and other Lombard lords in an attempt to drive their Byzantine overlords from Apulia. The Lombard army, spearheaded by the Normans, won five victories over the local Byzantine forces.
In response, the Emperor Basil I dispatched elite forces from the capital, Constantinople. These including a force of the elite Varangian Guard. This is the first time (but not the last) that Norman and Varangian would face-off against each other; and its easy to suppose that a rivalry grew-up between these two elite forces; both of Viking descent. At the Battle of Cannae, site of Hannibal’s greatest victory over the Romans, the two armies met. The Byzantines won a decisive victory, and the Normans suffered heavily, with only 10 of the 250 Normans surviving. Among the dead was Gilbert himself, along with his brother Osmond.
Curiously, however, Normans were later that year left to garrison in a key Byzantine fortress guarding an Apennine pass; so it appears that they quickly joined the winning side as mercenaries. The Normans, led by Gilbert’s brother Rainulf Drengot would continue to serve as mercenaries both in Lombard and Byzantine service over the next few decades. During this time, the number of Normans in south Italy steadily increased. The Normans became past-masters of playing one Lombard prince off against another; always to their own gain. By 1030, the Normans in southern Italy had become so powerful that Sergius Duke of Naples granted Rainulf possession of the former Byzantine stronghold of Aversa, with the title of count and his sister in marriage.
Sometime around 1035 another group of brothers began coming to south Italy to make their fortunes. These were the d’Hautevilles, the sons of Tancred d’ Hauteville; a minor lord from the Cotentin region of Normandy. The first of his sons to make the trek to Italy were William and Drogo. After some years, they were joined by their brothers Humphrey, Robert, and Roger. The d’Hauteville brothers spent the next decade carving out fiefdoms for themselves in the south, conquering Calabria.
Arms of Roger d’Hauteville, Count of Sicily
.In 1038, the d’Hautevilles led a Norman mercenary force hired by the Byzantine general, George Maniakes, to aid in the conquest of Saracen Sicily. It was during this campaign that William won his nickname bras de fer (“Iron Arm”) by single-handedly killing the Emir of Syracuse in a single combat. Also on this campaign was a contingent of Varangian Guardsmen, led by a young and hotheaded Norse prince, Harald Sigurdsson; the future king of Norway known as Hardrada. During the campaign, there was friction once again between Norman and Varangian; and between the commanders of both corps and their general, Maniakes. Though successful, Maniakes alienated his subordinates; particularly his fleet’s admiral, a worthless military non-entity who was well-connected at the Imperial Court. After striking the man during an argument, Maniakes was recalled and the campaign collapsed.
Returning to Italy, the Normans joined with the Lombards in fomenting a general revolt against the Byzantines in Apulia. In a series of battles in 1041 at Olivento, Monte Maggiore (fought near the earlier Norman defeat at Cannae), and at the Battle of Montepeloso the Normans under William d’Hauteville shattered the Byzantine forces and forever broke their power in Italy. In their place, the Normans took over all Apulia except Bari. After William’s death in 1046, the Normans were led by each of the d’Hauteville brother’s in turn: first Drogo, then Humphrey and then Robert.
Norman castles sprang-up across Italy and Sicily in the wake of Norman conquest. Many were former Lombard, Byzantine, or Saracen strongholds. Here is the Norman-built castle at Erice, in the northwest corner of Sicily.
Robert (called Guiscard, meaning “the Cunning”, or “the Weasel”) was the most successful of the d’Hauteville brothers. He conquered the Lombard principalities; and with his brother Roger conquered Sicily. In 1071 he took the last Byzantine stronghold, Bari; and created a Norman duchy ( that would eventually grow into the Kingdom of Sicily). As the close ally and defender of the Pope, Robert the Weasel became the most powerful ruler in Italy, and counterbalance to the power of the German Emperor.
In May of 1081, Robert led his last campaign; this time crossing the Adriatic Sea and invading the Byzantine Empire. The Norman fleet of 150 ships carried an army (allegedly) numbering 30,000 men (though it was unlikely to have surpassed 10,000), including 1,300 Norman knights. With him was his son, Bohemond, the future Count of Taranto and leader of the First Crusade.
The Eastern Roman Empire was in a much weakened state following the disaster at Manzikert ten years earlier; and from the civil wars that had followed. The new Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, was a vigorous and competent administrator, and had proven himself an able general in his rise to the throne. But he was unprepared for the Norman attack.
Robert laid siege to Durazzo/Dyrrhachium, the chief port of Byzantine Illyria, in May 1081. The city was well defended, resting on a narrow peninsula running parallel to the coast. The garrison was ably commanded by the Roman noble, George Palaeologus. The town held out through the summer, aided and resupplied by the combined Byzantine and Venetian fleets.
By September, Alexius had prepared a large relief army and marched on Durazzo. According to Anna Comnena, Alexius had about 20,000 men. It included the Tagmata regiments stationed at Constantinople; 1,000 Varangian Guardsmen; and some 8,000 Turk and Pecheneg light horse archers. The ranks of the Varangians by this time in history were heavily filled with émigré Anglo-Saxons; fleeing the Norman conquest of their homeland and eager to gain revenge for their defeat at Hastings, 15 years earlier.
On the 18th of October, 1081, Norman and Byzantine armies met in the Battle of Durazzo. Both wings of the Byzantine army were eventually defeated and fled the battlefield. Though the Varangians in the center were initially successful, they advanced too far; out of support by the and were forced to halt by charges of the Norman horsemen. Guiscard brought up crossbowmen, closely supported by Norman knights threatening to charge. This forced the Varangians to halt and form shieldburg; which proved incapable of withstanding the powerful close rang fire from the crossbowmen. Alternating heavy cavalry charges with missile attack, the Normans inflicted heavy casualties on the Varangians. Finally, these broke and the survivors fled into a nearby church; which the Normans set on fire.
The Emperor Alexius fleeting the field a Durazzo, while the Norman victors scoff at him in the background. His well-made heavy armor saved him several other-wise fatal wounds, including lance blows from charging knights. As the Emperor rides away, two broken lances dangle from his armor.
The duel between Anglo-Saxon Varangians and the Italio-Normans at Durazzo was a rematch of the Battle of Hastings, fifteen years earlier. Some of the older Varangians may, indeed, have been present at that earlier battle; smarting for revenge. But once again, the combined-arms-tactics of the Normans proved superior to unsupported (if valiant) heavy infantry alone.
Robert returned to Italy after the fall of Durazzo, leaving Bohemond to carry on the campaign. He died 4 years later. Bohemond was thwarted by Alexius in a mobile campaign in western Greece; and eventually was forced to retire back to Italy.
In the power-struggle that followed Guiscard’s death, Bohemond retained control of the city of Taranto; where he was accepted as Count. When the First Crusade was called in 1097, he led the Normans of Italy. Ultimately, Bohemond helped to capture the great city of Antioch; where founded a Norman Principality that became the second-greatest Crusader state after the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
THE NORMANS IN POPULAR MEDIA
Compared to, say, the Vikings or stories involving the later Medieval knights, the Normans have received scant attention in film and television. There are, however, several good novels and one excellent film depiction of the Norman knight in the 11th century.
Author Alfred Duggan penned several books in which the Normans were the subject matter. “Lady for Ransom” (1953), a story of Norman mercenaries in Byzantine service is excellent. Two stories about Normans on the First Crusade are also quite good: “Count Bohemond” (1964), and “A Knight With Armor” (1950).
Another excellent novelist on the subject is George Shipway; who’s 1972 novel, “The Paladin”, set in Normandy and England post-conquest is worth the read. His “Knight in Anarchy” (1969), set during the period known as “The Anarchy” in the mid-12th century is interesting as well.
There is only one good film that strives to capture the look and feeling of the Normans in the 11th century. This is “The Warlord” (1965) directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, and starring Charleton Heston (1965). A tight, well-crafted and very intimate tale of a petty Norman lord charged with holding a lonely fortress on the North Sea. The costuming, armor and other props in this film represent the best job Hollywood ever did showing 11th century Normans. Charleton Heston even got the distinctive Norman “bowl cut” hairstyle for the role. I wholeheartedly recommend this film.
The Norman knights can trace their roots back to both the Viking warriors who filled the ranks of the Jomsvikings, the Huscarls, and that of their oft-rivals, the Varangian Guard ; as well as the Frankish horsemen, the Caballarii of Charlemagne. In him is seen the daring and ferocious courage of the Viking warrior combined with the superb horsemanship and mobility of the Frankish heavy cavalry. At Hastings and Durazzo the Normans decisively defeated champions of the Dark Ages, fighting in the Viking-style; ushering in the Middle Ages, and the dominance of heavy cavalry on the European battlefield.
Norman knights clash with the Anglo-Saxon defenders on Senlac Hill, 1066.
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- Hrolf was called “the Walker” because he was supposedly too tall to ride the small horse/ponies available in Norway at the time.
- This tactic, used most famously at the Battle of Hastings, is often attributed to the Norman’s Breton allies, or learned while fighting against them. But feigned flight was a tactic used by the Norman’s Viking ancestors centuries before Hastings, and the Normans used this tactic in 1053 at the Battle of St. Aubin.)
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.