The Norman Conquests of England and Italy

In the ninth and early tenth centuries, a second age of invasions besieged western Europe, threatening the re-emerging civilization of the Latin kingdoms. From the north came the Vikings and from the east, the Magyars, while Muslim pirates still plagued the Mediterranean. One western European monarch’s solution to this devastating raiding was to utilize an ‘if you can’t defeat them, employ them’ strategy. In 911 the Frankish king Charles the Simple did just that, concluding a treaty with a Norwegian chief named Rollo and asking him to settle at the mouth of the Seine River, in effect creating a Viking buffer state in northern France. Rollo converted to Catholicism, married Charles’s daughter, and founded Normandy, the ‘land of the Northmen’. Soon, the Normans assimilated into French culture, exercising their untamed military prowess within the framework of feudalism.

Armed with long swords and protected by their trademark conical helm, mail hauberk and kite shield, Norman knights became an irresistible juggernaut on the battlefield. By the middle of the eleventh century, the Normans were the pre-eminent heavy cavalry in western Europe. As Norman military power grew, so did their political aspirations, and southern Italy and Sicily were their first conquest. At first the Normans came to Italy as mercenaries, serving the Byzantines against the Muslims or fighting for Lombard noble families against the Greeks. From their first success at Salerno in 1016 to the unification of lower Italy and Sicily into the kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1129, Norman strength was sufficient to drive the German emperor Henry IV out of Rome and take Pope Gregory VII under their protection. The Normans even considered the conquest of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

But Norman conquests would not be limited to the Mediterranean. The Norman lord William the Bastard (c.1028–1087), seventh duke of Normandy and direct descendent of Rollo, laid claim to the English throne after the death of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor. The duke of Normandy made good on his claim by crossing the English Channel in late September 1066 with an army of 11,000 Norman, Breton and Flemish men, challenging Edward’s successor, King Harold Godwinson, at the battle of Hastings in south-east England.

The autumn of 1066 proved to be a difficult time for the new Anglo-Saxon king, a monarch who awaited two invasion fleets to challenge his throne. In January, on the very day Edward the Confessor was laid to rest, Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex, was proclaimed king of the Anglo-Saxons by the Witan or Grand Council in London. But Harold realized his claim would not go uncontested. In Norway, King Harald Hardrada wanted to re-establish the Viking claim to the English throne. The victor at the sea battle of Nisa only four years before, Hardrada intrigued with the new Anglo-Saxon king’s brother, Tostig, the disgruntled earl of Northumbria. In order to reinstate Tostig in northern England and establish a foothold for further conquest, Hardrada launched an invasion fleet of 300 ships in mid-September. The Viking fleet entered the Humber River and disembarked a force of 9,000 men 10 miles south-east of York, their intended target, where they were joined by Tostig’s supporters (Map 3.1).

On 20 September, Hardrada met and defeated an Anglo-Saxon army of perhaps 4,000 men at Fulford Gate. The city of York quickly surrendered, and Hardrada pulled out of the city to the safety of Riccall, east of York, where his fleet was anchored. The news of the English defeat at Fulford reached Godwinson in London, where he was waiting to see which of the two expected invasion forces would strike first, the Norwegian in the north or the Norman in the south. Harold immediately gathered a mounted force of 8,000 men and marched north to York.

Harold Godwinson’s army consisting of 2,000 of his personal bodyguard, the huscarles, and perhaps another 6,000 members from the Select Fyrd, a body of Anglo-Saxon nobles and freeman organized since the Viking invasions of the ninth century to defend England. The core of Godwinson’s rapid deployment force was the huscarles, made up of Danish volunteers, Saxon household troops and professionally trained and equipped relations of the king and earls. Protected like their Viking forebears in ring-reinforced leather jerkins or mail, these soldiers wore conical helms and carried large 3 foot round shields or kite shields. The huscarles’ primary offensive arm was the large Viking broad axe, with its characteristic 5 foot haft, swung with both hands in an overarm motion from the left side in order to hit the opponent on the unshielded side. As secondary weapons, the huscarles used short spears and javelins, thrust overarm or thrown.


Map 3.1. The Viking and Norman Invasions of England, 1066.

Besides his huscarles, chosen members of the Anglo-Saxon army known as the Select Fyrd accompanied Harold. The Select Fyrd consisted of both a trained warrior class of thegns (similar to the Viking bondi), landowners of 100 acres or more who were obligated to serve in the Anglo-Saxon army during wartime or a military emergency once per year, and of trained peasants or fyrdmen, paid per term served, usually two months per year. The thegns and fyrdmen fought side by side with no class distinction in a heterogeneous mix, defending Anglo-Saxon England since the battle of Maldon in 991. In battle, the huscarles, thegns and fyrdmen fought as infantry, using horses for strategic mobility and dismounting for combat. Anglo-Saxon tactics owed much to earlier Germanic and Viking trends toward unarticulated infantry and there is little evidence that the Anglo-Saxons possessed a true heavy cavalry arm prior to 1066.

The huscarles and Select Fyrd were supported on campaign by the local peasant militia, sometimes called the General Fyrd or Great Fyrd. These levies usually fought locally to protect their hearth and home, but as soldiers they were the least dependable element of the Anglo-Saxon army. When in combat, the General Fyrd usually occupied the rear ranks behind their more able and better-armed comrades. The placement of peasant levies in the rear had changed little since late antiquity when the Franks and Goths fought with the experienced warriors in front, forming the outer edge of the boar’s head formation, and the lesser-armoured troops behind.

Unencumbered by the slow-marching General Fyrd, long supply lines, or a baggage train, Godwinson’s mounted army traversed 190 miles from London to Yorkshire in just five days, arriving in Tadcaster, 10 miles south of York (see Map 3.1). Sealing off Tadcaster in order to maintain strategic surprise, Harold moved into York under cover of darkness, then marched in the early morning hours of 25 September the 8 miles toward Stamford Bridge, where Hardrada and Tostig awaited negotiators from York (Map 3.2(a)). As the English army moved over and down the hill toward Stamford Bridge, Hardrada was caught completely off guard. One third of the Viking army was left behind in Riccall, while many of those men present at the bridge were without helmets or armour. Hardrada dispatched messengers back to Riccall to bring reinforcements, then deployed a small detachment of soldiers as a delaying force on the York side of Stamford Bridge directly in the path of the English advance.

As the English column crashed into the Viking rearguard, Hardrada rushed his men across the bridge and formed them up in a shield wall on a ridge dominating a meadow, about 300 yards from the Derwent River (Map 3.2(b)). Despite the valour of the Viking rearguard (according to theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle, one lone Norseman killed forty Anglo-Saxons on the bridge before being overwhelmed), the English eventually gained the bridge and spilled out over into the meadow on the other side. Harold re-formed his lines, then attacked up the ridge (Map 3.2(c) and (d)).

At first, the Vikings held their ground behind their shield walls, but then, deceived by a feigned withdrawal, Hardrada himself broke ranks and, leading his own huscarles, launched a premature counter-attack (Map 3.2(e)). It is at this moment that Hardrada may have taken an arrow in the throat. Nevertheless, the huscarles surged and buried the Norse king under a fury of English blades. Even the late arrival of a relief force from Riccall could not turn the battle in the Vikings’ favour. As darkness neared, the surviving Norse were pursued by remounted English troops back to the waiting Viking fleet at Riccall, where, with their backs up against their longships, they were drowned or slaughtered (Map 3.2(f)). When King Harold rounded up the Norse survivors of the battle and placed them aboard their captured Viking ships for the trip home, only 24 of the original 300 ships were needed to carry them back to Norway.

Harold Godwinson won a decisive victory over the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge, forever ending the threat of another Viking invasion force on English soil. After the battle, the badly injured Anglo-Saxon army limped back to York, where, on 1 October while resting and enjoying a victory feast, news arrived that William the Bastard had landed at Pevensey on 28 September with 11,000 men. Unwilling to let the Normans pillage his subjects in south-east England, Godwinson gathered his weary but undefeated army and rode south to defend his crown.


Map 3.2 The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066. (a) Phase I: Harald Hardrada and his Norwegian army, accompanied by Tostig, the brother of the newly crowned Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, await a party of negotiators from York near Stamford Bridge (1). The unexpected appearance of an Anglo-Saxon force under Godwinson (2) sets off a flurry of activity in the Viking camp. Hardrada deploys a rearguard (3), orders his army to the far side of the Derwent River (4) and dispatches a messenger to Riccall for reinforcements (5). (b) Phase II: Heavily outnumbered by the English column (1), the Vikings’ hard-fighting rearguard is inexorably driven back to and across the bridge (2). Their valiant stand has purchased precious time, allowing Hardrada to begin forming a shield wall on a ridge dominating a riverside meadow (3). (c) Phase III: Finally overcoming the last remnants of the Viking rearguard, the English forces pour across the bridge (1) and form in the meadow (2) as the invaders finish forming their shield wall (3). (d) Phase IV: Harold launches an attack uphill (1) against the Viking shield wall (2), but the defenders hold their ground.

(e) Phase V: Harold orders a feigned retreat and Hardrada takes the bait. The Vikings break the integrity of their shield wall and pelt down the slope after their foes (2). They are met by a flurry of arrows (3), and Hardrada may have fallen at this point in the battle, an arrow piercing his throat (4). A Viking relief force from their fleet’s anchorage at Riccall arrives too late (5) to tip the scales in the Norsemen’s favour as Harold orders an Anglo-Saxon counter-attack. (f) Phase VI: As nightfall approaches, the English forces regain their mounts and launch a pursuit (1). The fleeing Norwegians (2) are finally brought to bay at Riccall, where many are drowned or slaughtered at the edge of the river. Harold gathers the survivors and places them aboard captured longships for their return voyage. Out of the original invasion fleet of 300, only 24 ships are needed for this task.


King Harold covered the 190 miles from York to London in five days, a testimony to the strategic mobility of medieval armies (see Map 3.1). In London, he ordered his army to resupply and put out a call to arms for the General Fyrd. But reports that William was ravaging the English countryside compelled Harold to cut short his recruitment and move to where William was waiting at Hastings. On 13 October, Godwinson arrived at Caldbec Hill, 8 miles from Hastings, and put out a call for the local fyrd to join him. By nightfall his force totalled perhaps 8,000 men, including 2,000 huscarles, and 2,000 to 3,000 troops from the thegns and Select Fyrd. The balance of the army came from the local peasant militia or General Fyrd.

Godwinson most likely planned to conduct a surprise attack against William, but his arrival at Caldbec Hill so late in the day cost him the initiative in this campaign. Without surprise, Harold recognized his exhausted and relatively inexperienced army could not launch a successful attack against William’s forces at Hastings in the same manner that brought him victory against Hardrada at Stamford Bridge. Understanding the extreme vulnerability of his unarticulated infantry army to Norman shock cavalry on level ground, Harold decided to take the defensive with the hope of exhausting the Normans. On the morning of 14 October, Harold ordered his Anglo-Saxon army to Senlac Hill, deploying his infantry along a 1,100 yard front straddling the only exit road from Hastings, thereby blocking William’s access to the English heartland.

William the Bastard’s scouts discovered Godwinson’s army on the evening of 13 October, then informed the duke that they were approaching. After spending a night in his camp at Hastings on full alert, William gathered a force of about 8,000 troops (leaving 3,000 men to garrison Hastings) and struck out in the early hours of 14 October in search of the Anglo-Saxons. The invading army approached Senlac Hill deployed in column just as Harold was finishing his own deployment. The largest contingent of William’s army, the Bretons, anchored his left, while the Normans took up position in the centre, and the Franco-Flemish allies formed up on the duke’s right.

Whereas Harold’s army was an infantry force made up of some 8,000

spear-, axe-, sword- and javelin-wielding troops, William’s army was a true combined-arms force, consisting of 4,000 infantry, 3,000 mounted knights and 1,000 bowmen. William arrayed his forces in three lines. In the first line he placed his archers and crossbowmen, in his second, his heavy infantry, and in the third line, his heavy cavalry. The Norman commander understood the power of the combined-arms tactical system, and he intended to employ his forces in recognition of each arm’s strengths.

Godwinson arrayed his army on Senlac Hill in a shield wall seven ranks deep across a front 1,100 yards wide. In typical Saxon fashion, he placed his best troops, the huscarles and thegns, in the front ranks (Map 3.3(a)). Behind these experienced warriors he placed his Select Fyrd, and in the rear were the levies of local militia from the General Fyrd. Harold commanded the English from a small hill behind the lines, surrounded by members of his personal bodyguard, the huscarles.

The battle of Hastings began at mid-morning when Norman light infantry archers moved slowly up the slope toward the English position, then opened fire on the English shield wall (Map 3.3(b)). William hoped that his archers would thin the ranks of the English line. The Norman arrow barrage did not break up the English infantry, and William ordered his archers to withdraw and his heavy infantry into the attack. As the Norman infantry advanced uphill, it came under attack by a hail of javelins, spears and sling bullets. Fierce fighting ensued when the invaders crashed into the English shield wall. As the infantry clashed, William ordered his cavalry to attack, but the mounted knights failed to penetrate the English lines (Map 3.3(c)). On William’s left the Bretons, who met the English line first, became confused and disengaged in order to regroup at the bottom of the hill.

The apparent flight of the Bretons forced William to disengage his centre and right to cover his exposed left flank (Map 3.3(d)). The English right, which repulsed the Bretons, broke ranks and counter-attacked down the hill. At this moment the rest of William’s army began to waver, and rumour spread that William had been killed. To rally his men, William personally led his bodyguard into a meadow and lifted his conical helm, reassuring his men that he was still alive. The duke of Normandy then ordered his centre to wheel left and pursue the Anglo-Saxon counter-attack, cutting it off from any support from the ridge (Map 3.3(e)). Godwinson watched helplessly from Senlac Hill as hundreds of his men were surrounded and slaughtered.

At midday William ordered another assault against Godwinson’s shield wall. Once again, the continental archers attempted to break up the Anglo-Saxon line, and once again the infantry attacked, but the shield wall held (Map 3.3(f)). William himself led the cavalry charge, and had his horse cut out from underneath him. But at the end of the second attack, the English held firm, and the Normans withdrew to their original position down the hill.

During the afternoon, both sides regrouped and rested (Map 3.3(g)). Although the two Norman assaults had not breached the Anglo-Saxon line, the attacks were taking a toll on the English defenders. William’s use of alternate shock and missile attacks caused casualties and demoralized a force that received both forms of attack passively. Without light infantry and a cavalry arm, Godwinson had no choice but to remain on the defensive and absorb the Norman attacks.

Some time in the late afternoon, William assembled his forces for one last assault on Godwinson’s position. This time, William ordered his archers to target the rear ranks of the shield wall where the General Fyrd was located. This angle of attack allowed the archers to continue their shower while the Norman infantry and cavalry engaged the enemy. As the Norman archers rained death down on the Anglo-Saxon rear, William ordered his infantry to attack up Senlac Hill again, closely followed by a cavalry charge. With daylight fading, the English line began to falter under the attack.


Figure 3.3 The Battle of Hastings, 1066. (a) Phase I: As Harold Godwinson puts the finishing touches on his army’s deployment into a seven-rank shield-wall, William the Bastard’s invading army deploys from column into line facing the English positions on Senlac Hill. (b) Phase II: At mid-morning, William orders his archers forward, hoping to thin the English ranks and weaken the shield wall (1). As it becomes apparent that the Norman archers are failing to break up Harold’s formation, William orders them to withdraw (2) and orders his heavy infantry into motion (3). (c) Phase III: As William’s infantry collide with the English shield wall (1), the duke orders his heavy cavalry forward (2). Even with the additional weight hurled against them, the English fail to break. William’s Breton forces on his left (3), having been engaged longer than their comrades, begin to lose cohesion and withdraw in an attempt to regroup (4). (d) Phase IV: The Breton withdrawal forces William to begin to disengage his line in an attempt to protect his now exposed left (1), as the victorious English right break ranks to pursue the Bretons down the hill (2). The apparent flight of the Bretons and a report that William has been killed cause the Norman army to begin to waver (3). At this moment of crisis, William shows himself to his men to disprove the rumour, and rallies his forces (4).

(e) Phase V: William wheels his centre and encircles the over-extended and unsupported English (1), destroying them and snuffing out their counter-attack (2). (f) Phase VI: Having regrouped his forces, at midday William orders his archers to attack Harold’s shield wall yet again (1), followed by another infantry assault (2) and cavalry charge (3), the latter led by the duke himself. None of these manoeuvres succeed in breaking the English line, and the Normans withdraw to the base of the hill. (g) Phase VII: As the day wears on, both sides regroup (1). Harold’s English army has absorbed a great deal of punishment without inflicting much in return. William orders another assault, this time ordering his archers to target the English rear (2). This shift in trajectory allows the Norman infantry and cavalry to press their attack (3) and they begin to make inroads in the English shield wall. During this attack, Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow and falls wounded (4). (h) Phase VIII: A band of Normans cuts its way through to Harold’s position and kills the king (1). Now breached in many places (2), the English shield wall begins to disintegrate as word of their leader’s death spreads. Although small groups of huscarles fight to the death, the English forces begin to flee the battlefield (3), and the victorious Normans overrun the ridge.


All along the English front, Norman infantry and cavalry were penetrating the shield wall. It was at this moment that an arrow struck King Harold in the eye. As Harold lay wounded, a group of Norman knights fought their way to his headquarters and killed him (Map 3.3(h)). News of the king’s death spread quickly through the Anglo-Saxon ranks, breaking the defenders’ morale. Although small handfuls of the huscarles fought on to the end, a general rout ensued and the Normans overran the ridge.

The battle for Senlac Hill proved to be a deadly struggle between Anglo-Saxon infantry and a Norman combined-arms army utilizing heavy cavalry as its centrepiece. But one must remember that heavy cavalry did not win this battle by itself, but in co-operation with heavy and light infantry. In fact, the battle was only won when William stopped using his archers, infantry and knights piecemeal and used them in concert for the final assault on Senlac Hill, killing a king and destroying the flower of Anglo-Saxon nobility. William of Normandy emerged from the fray as William the Conqueror, and on Christmas Day 1066 was proclaimed King William I by the Anglo-Saxon Witan.

The complete conquest of England was not immediately achieved by the victory at Hastings. William faced scattered Saxon resistance until 1069. During the conquest, William ordered a Norman motte-and-bailey castle built in every important borough (perhaps 550 of these fortifications were built between 1066 and 1087) and appointed a Norman vassal to serve in each district as his governor. William was careful to take title to the whole of England and make his vassals swear an oath of personal loyalty to him in return for their fiefs. William ensured that the Norman form of centralized feudalism would replace the patchwork of earldoms that had dominated Anglo-Saxon England for centuries. He also extended his control to southern Scotland in 1072, initiating centuries of border wars with the Scots. Because he and his heirs retained the title of the duke of Normandy, at his death in 1087, William left an Anglo-Norman empire that would be a source of conflict between England and France for centuries to come.

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 was preceded by the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily beginning in the early eleventh century. At this time, the southern half of Italy was in a state of near anarchy. Although the area was nominally under Byzantine control, most of the inhabitants were not loyal to their Greek landlords. Norman adventuring in southern Italy was first recorded in 1017, when a man named Melus rebelled against his Byzantine lords in Baro with the aid of 250 Norman knights. Melus and his forces met the Byzantine governor at the battle of Cannae, and were soundly defeated. Only a few Norman knights survived the battle. Despite this inauspicious entrance into Italian affairs, the Normans were in great demand in Italian armies, and began arriving on the peninsula in large numbers. Norman knights were hired as mercenaries by Lombardian, Langobardian and Byzantine rulers, often fighting on opposing sides for whatever lord would pay for their services.

In 1030 a Norman knight named Rainulf was given a castle and benefice by the duke of Naples as payment for helping him back into power. In the following decades, several more Norman knights became landholders, while some even became lords in their own right. Before long, the Lombards, who regretted inviting the Normans to Italy in the first place, were joined by the papacy, the Byzantines and the Holy Roman Empire in trying to prevent the creation of a strong Norman state in southern Italy. But in the end, their efforts failed when a combined German and Lombard army was defeated by the Normans at the battle of Civitate in 1053. After Civitate, control of southern Italy and Sicily was firmly in the hands of the Normans.

One of the primary architects of these conquests was Robert Guiscard (1016–1085), a Norman adventurer who built an army from the ground up out of local brigands. By 1057 Guiscard was the duke of Apulia. Over the next quarter of a century, Guiscard solidified his power base in southern Italy and Sicily, then turned his attention toward the east and Byzantium.

In 1081 Guiscard crossed the Adriatic and laid siege to the coastal city of Durazzo (ancient Dyrrachium) in what is now Albania. He landed his force on a small peninsula west of the mainland and made camp at the citadel of Dyrrachium. To aid the besieged city, the new Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, sent a large relief force consisting of mostly mercenaries and Serbian allies, with only a sprinkling of native Byzantine troops. The emperor planned to attack the Norman camp from three directions: from the north across a swamp and down the peninsula, from the east across a bridge, and by sea from the south. But before the Byzantines could converge on the Norman camp, Guiscard sallied from the camp across the bridge and burned the span behind him to prevent the flight of his own men (Map 3.4(a)).

The Byzantine vanguard, consisting of Varangian mounted heavy infantry, was the first to arrive on the battlefield. These unarticulated infantry men were armed and armoured like their Scandinavian cousins the huscarles with 5 foot hafted broad axes and protected by conical helms, mail, and round shields slung on their backs. The commander of the vanguard, Nampites, was given a small contingent of light cavalry archers by Alexius to use against the Normans. The emperor ordered his vanguard commander to use this light cavalry to break up the Norman lines, then exploit the tears with follow-up infantry attacks. Nampites disregarded these orders.

Without waiting for the main force to arrive, Nampites ordered the Varangians to dismount and boldly attack the right wing of the Norman lines before it arrayed for battle, driving both foot and horse into the sea (Map 3.4(b)). The element of surprise favoured Nampites in much the same way it had favoured Godwinson at Stamford Bridge. Still, Guiscard was quick to turn his flank and he counter-attacked the vanguard with a cavalry charge, cutting off the greater part of the relief force, and surrounding and isolating the remaining infantry on a small hill near the coast by the deserted Chapel of St Michael (Map 3.4(c)). Here, like the battle of Hastings (but on a smaller scale), the Normans made good use of heavy cavalry and light infantry archers with alternating shock and missile attacks.


Map 3.4 The Battle of Durazzo, 1081. (a) Phase I: Robert Guiscard’s Norman army makes camp at the citadel of Dyrrachium and lays siege to the town of Durazzo. The Emperor Alexius dispatches a force to attack the invaders through the swamps to the north of the enemy camp, across the bridge to their east, and from the sea to their south. Guiscard learns of the approach of the Varangian vanguard (1) and orders his force across the bridge (2), burning the span behind them to prevent retreat. (b) Phase II: Disregarding his orders to use an attached element of mounted archers to break up the enemy formations and to wait for the arrival of the main body, Nampites launches an immediate assault with his dismounted Varangian infantry against the Norman right (1). Hit before being fully deployed, the Norman horse and foot are driven into the sea (2). (c) Phase III: Guiscard quickly refuses his flank and launches his heavy cavalry in a charge that cuts off many of the Varangians (1). Lacking the tactical cohesion of their foes, many of Nampites’ men are slain. Those not killed in the counter-attack flee to a small hill and the chapel of St Michael (2). (d) Phase IV: Guiscard’s forces surround the chapel (1). The surviving Varangian infantry are burnt alive as they seek shelter in the building (2). When the Byzantines’ main body finally arrives, it refuses to engage the victorious Normans and leaves the area.

After the majority of the Varangians were killed by the combined-arms efforts of the Normans, the remaining northmen were burned out of the chapel. At Durazzo, the Varangian infantry were killed to the last man (Map 3.4(d)). When the other Byzantine mercenaries and allies arrived, they refused to engage the victorious Normans, and left without striking a single blow. The battle of Durazzo showed again the inferiority of medieval infantry in combat against feudal cavalry supported by light infantry.

By looking at the Norman successes in England and southern Europe, we can see how sophisticated medieval combined-arms tactics were in the eleventh century. In both regions, Norman heavy cavalry was the dominant feature in each success, but it by no means acted alone. Although combined-arms co-operation was limited in the medieval period, it was often essential to the success of a battle. Light infantry archers assisted Norman heavy cavalry at Hastings and Durazzo, and in both cases archers protected the mounted knights and wore down the enemy ranks, causing tears in the enemy formation that could be exploited by their own lancers.

Though the Normans made good use of the available tactical systems, the classical definition of combined arms was not in wide use by other commanders in the high Middle Ages. As the period continued, the value of using cavalry and infantry in co-operation would be lost on most medieval commanders, leading to the dominance of heavy cavalry in western European warfare. Furthermore, this dominance on the battlefield was reinforced by the mounted aristocracy’s pre-eminent position in medieval society, a position that increasingly placed the militia foot soldier as a second-class citizen, one that would be used as fodder on the battlefield. Perhaps most significantly, the ability of medieval heavy infantry militia to resist the aristocratic heavy cavalry alone virtually disappeared from the battlefields of western Europe for nearly 300 years. Heavy cavalry’s dominance in medieval warfare would persist until the thirteenth century when the application of light infantry tactics in co-operation with well-articulated heavy infantry battle squares returned to challenge the knight’s position at the top of the military order.

Medieval culture revolved around the knightly class, whose hereditary membership was primarily defined by the ability to fight as shock cavalry. Indoctrination into this military caste began at puberty with a long residency and training among peers in the household of a great lord. After learning the necessary skills of horse management, etiquette, and mounted and unmounted combat, the squire was dubbed a knight at his majority in either an elaborate church ceremony or on the field of battle. Training usually began around the age of twelve. The young squire was taught how to choose and look after a mount, as well as how to ride. He was also instructed in the use of a wide variety of weapons such as the spear, sword and shield, axe, mace, and flail, as well as unarmed combat such as wrestling. Once he could manage a horse, he learned how to hunt, a valuable skill which taught the use of terrain and available cover, and select lines of advance. Mounted combat was emphasized. As a knight he entered a martial fraternity that valued individual valour and honour gained through battle over co-operation with one’s peers and social inferiors on the battlefield.

This emphasis on individual warfare can best be seen in the emergence of tournaments in the early twelfth century, essentially medieval job fairs where knights could show their wares and build military reputations. Here, the skills of fighting on foot and on horseback in jousts were perfected. A knight’s primary goal was to capture an opponent and ransom him back to his vassals, thereby gaining both capital (weapons, armour, horses and money) and reputation. In 1177 the English knight and future regent of England, William Marshal (1146–1219), made a tour of the tournament circle with a Flemish knight named Roger de Gaugi. Within one ten-month period the pair defeated 103 knights, taking their horses, harness and equipment as their spoil. These early tournaments were very realistic and participants were often maimed or killed, which led to a more formalized and less dangerous tournament in the later medieval period.

The growth of tournaments in the early twelfth century was but another attempt to contain the martial atmosphere that accompanied the expansion of feudal warfare in the high Middle Ages. In the absence of strong, centralized monarchical authority, a culture of violence emerged. Civil disputes and criminal cases alike ceased to be adjudicated by the enfeebled royal power and were instead settled by the sword. The unarmed segment of the population, the church and the peasants, increasingly became victims. The prevailing anarchy stimulated a response from the strongest institution of the medieval period, the Catholic Church, which launched two movements designed to limit and contain the warrior aristocracy’s violent behaviour.

In the ‘Peace of God’ (first pronounced in 989), the Church threatened spiritual sanctions against anyone who plundered or violated a church, struck an unarmed member of the clergy or robbed a peasant. The prohibition was later extended to knights attacking merchants or pilgrims and destroying mills or vineyards. Early in the eleventh century the second movement emerged. The ‘Truce of God’ asked the mounted aristocracy to forgo the pleasure of war on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holy days, and to refrain from acts of violence at all times in and around churches.

Although how much the Church’s sanctions curtailed the knightly class’s behaviour is debatable, their impact on the mounted warrior’s psychology and on the institution of knighthood was significant. The collective oaths helped create a class-consciousness that included acknowledging a personal responsibility to the Catholic Church and to the unarmed population. In fact, by prohibiting attacks on the clergy and the poor, the Church was advocating a new knightly mission as active protector of both.

Moreover, the oaths taken to enforce the Peace and Truce of God married the institutions of war and religion in western Europe and helped establish how the aristocratic heavy cavalryman defined himself. These perceptions became codified in the high Middle Ages in chivalry (afterchevallerie, meaning ‘skill on horseback’ in French), essentially a fusion of Germanic and Christian cultural elements into a new code of honour. From the eleventh century onward, chivalry was reinforced by the religious ceremony of dubbing to knighthood, the adoption of distinguishing emblems and blazons (and the science of heraldry to develop and interpret these symbols of station), and the emergence in the twelfth century of court poets known as troubadours to sing the praises of knights living, past and legendary.

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the marriage of religion and warfare in medieval Europe can be seen in the rise of military orders dedicated to fighting the enemies of Christendom in Church-sponsored holy wars known as crusades. Beginning in the twelfth century, these militia Christi or ‘soldiers of Christ’ fought the infidel in crusades in Spain, the Holy Land and eastern Europe with various degrees of success. In each of these regions, the Knights Templars, Knights Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, and the Spanish orders of Calatrava, Santiago and Alcantara performed their military duties with a monastic discipline in stark contrast to the often uncontrollable individualism of traditional knights.

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