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 laid the ground-work for the later Holy Roman Empire.
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. Such 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.
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 to the formations or regiments of this group. Further, the scara of Charlemagne seem to have been divided into three bodies (or ranks of senority?): the scholares, the scola, and the milites aulae regiae. A tentative explanation is that the scholares were an inner bodyguard of the king (the term obviously derived from the elite guards units of the late Roman Empire, and contemporarily an Imperial Guard regiment of the Byzantine Empire); the scola the guards regiment as a whole; and the last seeming to translate as the “Soldiers of the Royal Court”. In the following century, the term milites came to mean an armored professional mounted warrior; the progenitor of the Medieval knight. So perhaps the milites aulae regiae were all those members of the scara not designated as “Royal Guards”, but quartered in proximity to the palace.
Contemporary representations of Carolingian foot may be dismounted caballarii of the Scara
Another term sometimes used is “palatina“. This is another late Roman military term, used to designate elite formations of the army that were quartered near the capital. It is possible that in Carolingian parlance, the term may have been used to indicate all three of these categories of scara; who were quartered near the king/emperor’s residence. It is from this term for Charlemagne’s elite palace soldiers that the word paladin derives. In the 11th century chansons (chansons de geste), these paladins were a dozen champions of the Emperor’s court. Its possible that if indeed the Scholares were the Emperor’s bodyguards, that this group numbered a dozen and was the ultimate source of the legends of the Paladins.
The caballarii in the armies of Charlemagne and his immediate successors were relatively few in number, though an exact figure cannot definitely be given. The lowest number suggested by scholars is 5,000 for the entire empire (Delbruck); and a high number of 35,000 (Werner). this latter figure seems absurdly inflated, considering the prohibitively high cost of warhorses (up to twelve times the cost of a cow), not to mention the cost of their feed and maintenance. Large warhorses, capable of carrying a minimal of 250lbs of armored man, were in short supply. However, throughout the Carolingian period the kings made every effort to increase the size of their herds. At the Battle of Montfaucon, in 888, the Franks may have had as many as 10,000 mounted men (though, again, this may be exaggeration by the sources).
Merovingian kings inherited Roman horse farms in Gaul, and these were maintained and enlarge where possible. Warhorses were large, strong animals; 15-16 hands in height and between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds. Maintenance of the royal herds was under the authority of a court official titled comes stabuli (“Count of the Stables”, or Constable). By the Middle Ages, this officer would become the senior military leader in the realm.
Those caballarii in attendance upon Charlemagne and quartered about his palace were likely less than 1,000 in number. There is speculation that all scara units were organized into regiments of 300 caballarii, and further divided into 50-men sub-units called cunei (derived from the Latin cuneus, or “wedge”, in the late Roman army a cavalry detachment).
Frankish cavalrymen in this period were trained according to late Roman practice; Vegetius‘ De Re Militari being greatly admired and translated. In the mid-9th century, a courtier named Rabanus Maurus translated those portions he thought appropriate to his age; including in this useful handbook a section on cavalry training. Inthis epitome of Vegetius, we find some of the training practices of the Carolingian caballarius:
“Wooden horses are placed during the winter under a roof and in summer in a field. The recruits at first try to mount unarmed, then they mount carrying shields and swords, and finally with very large pole weapons. And this practice was so thorough that they were forced to learn how to jump on and off their horses not only from the right but from the left and from the rear and in addition they learned to jump on and off their horses even with an unsheathed sword.
No mention is made of stirrups in this exercise. Scholars debate wither stirrups had yet come into use by the Franks of this period. Training in leaping on-and-off the horse, armed and in armor follows Roman practice, when stirrups were certainly unknown. Rabanus notes in his text: “Indeed, the exercise of jumping [on and off one’s horse] has flourished greatly among the Frankish people.”
The importance of group training exercises was not lost on the Carolingians. Regular musters for training purposes were held. One such at Worms, in 842, stresses the technique of feigned flight (as well as use of a hidden reserve, laying in ambush); tactics used to good effect by the Frankish cavalry throughout the Carolingian period, and into the later Ottonian. A chronicler describes these training “games”, in which warriors from both the German and French parts of the Carolingian realm took part:
For purposes of training, games were often arranged in the following manner. Fighting-men would be deployed in a place where they could be observed. The entire group of Saxons, Gascons, Austrasians, and Bretons were divided into two units of equal size. They charged forward from both sides and came toward each other at full speed. Then [before contact was made] one side turned its back and under the protection of their shields pretended to be trying to escape. Then those who had been engaged in a feigned retreat counter-attacked and the pursuers simulated flight. Then both kings [Louis the German and Charles the Bald] and all of the young men, raising a great yell, charged forward on their horses brandishing their spear shafts. Now one group feigned retreat and then the other. It was a spectacle worthy of being seen as much because of its nobility as because of its discipline.
The use of feigned flight by the Normans at Hastings in 1066 is an example of “Frankish” military practice dating back to this period (though the Norman’s Viking ancestors used this tactic, on foot, in some of their battles).
Arms and armor in the early Carolingian Empire was expensive. In time, regulations demanded that landowners of a certain size provide one suitably equipped man to the heerbann when summoned. Smaller farmers could band together to provide the required fighting man to the summons. However, it is not clear if the caballarii of the scara were paid-for and maintained by this method; or were paid with land grants (benefices) from the king or great lords (the territorial Counts and Dukes), and had to outfit themselves from the revenues collected from their own lands. This certainly became the case in the next century, as France in particular grew more feudal, and power devolved into the hands of the great magnates and their private armies of feudal retainers.
A fully armed caballarius was expected to have a helmet, body armor (called brunia, similar to the Scandinavian term for a mail shirt, byrnie), spatha (sword), and lancea (spear). The latter was 8-10 feet in length, with an extended and sharpened iron head. The caballarius of Charlemagne used the spear overhanded or underhanded, as a thrusting weapon; or threw the spear at close quarters. The technique of couching the lance tightly in the rider’s armpit, the most popular technique for knights throughout the Middle Ages, did not come into use until the late 11th and or early 12th century. Horsemen from the Spanish or Breton Marches were often lighter, and used javelins from horseback in the Roman manner.
In battle the caballarii fought in tightly-packed units, each 50 man cunei operating under its own banner. (This is the origin of the later Medieval conroi.) Against lighter cavalry, such as the Magyars, the Franks would use their lighter cavalry to feign flight, drawing the Magyar horsemen into a pursuit to where they could be ambushed by the heavier caballarii waiting in a concealed place. The armored caballarius were encouraged to charge in tight formation, defending against the Magyar’s arrows with their shields and coming to close-quarters as rapidly as possible.
At Riade in 933, Henry the Fowler, the first Ottonian King of Germany, used these very tactics to defeat a Magyar invasion; stopping Hungarian expansion into Germany. Feigned flight by light cavalry drew the Magyars into a pursuit; where they were ambushed by Henry’s heavy cavalry milites.
When fighting against the Vikings, the scara’s mobility allowed them to intercept and cut down small raiding parties. However, in attempting to eradicate Viking bases, which were fortified or located easily defended places, the caballarius would dismount and fight on foot; sometimes leaving a mounted reserve to protect the rear of those dismounted and engaged from sudden attack (the Vikings were famous for sallying forth from their camps, when under assault, and falling upon the rear of the attackers). Against the well-armed and formidable Vikings, the Franks were often overmatched. By the late 9th century, they (like Alfred the Great in Britain) were choosing to stay behind strong walls; and fortified bridges were built across the great rivers to hamper the movement of Viking longships.
The caballarii of Charlemagne were the military elite that helped create Europe’s first great empire since the Fall of Rome. They were the proto-type for all later Medieval heavy cavalry, eventually evolving into the 10th century milites and eventually the knights of the Middle Ages. In the 11th century chansons of Charlemagne’s Paladins we see a French-version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Like the better-known Arthur , these tales have their roots in a much earlier time; when Charlemagne and his caballarii were campaigning from the Danube to the Pyrenees. The legends of Roland/Orlando, Rinaldo, and Ogier the Dane are but the reflections of the true deeds of those Dark Ages elite warriors: the caballarii of Charlemagne!
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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.