Norman Cavalry
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-: The Norman Cavalry :-

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The Roll of Battle Abbey

Norman Cavalry

This collection of Photographs may help you visualise why the Norman's became a feared fighting force in Northern Europe around the 11th century. These shots were taken during the 1999 re-creation of the Battle of Hastings 1066 - on Senlac Field,  Battle.

I have avoided going into too much detail about Norman cavalry fighting tactics in the main text. I hope to redress the imbalance by devoting this section to them.

With the aid of the photographs of the re-creation, I will attempt to explain further about the Norman cavalry and why they had an important role in the final outcome of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

As explained in the main text of the battle, the concept of actually using the horse in a battle was totally alien to the Saxons. Horses were used primarily as beasts of burden and for transport to and from battles. It was normal, and was probably practised at Hastings, that the Saxon horses   were dismounted and led away from the scene prior to the conflict.

The Norman's had a completely different approach to the horse. It became a fundamental part of their battle tactics. I think it can be said  that many of the tactics used by the Norman's were still being practised right up until the end of the last century.

We think of the  British as having a " class structure". The Feudal system that existed in Normandy at the time was such that only the wealthy or noble could ever aspire to the Norman cavalry. The obligation to military service was without question. You were expected to do your duty. Allegiance to your lord was paramount.

Duty to your lord sometimes came at a price. Being high born obligated you to military duty - if you wanted it or not.   If military service was declined the only normal  face saving recourse was to join  the church.

Norman cavalry training began at an early age. Young sons of the Nobility were trained to ride almost as soon as they could walk. If it was not in the power of a lord to supply this training to his sons or subordinate nobility,  they would be placed with a lord who could.

It was this slow, continuous training that made the Norman cavalry so efficient as a fighting force.

The lord had a responsibility to supply men and cavalry to Duke William as required. It was also in his interest to maintain a fighting force to protect his own estate.

The Norman Lords realised that fighting wars on horseback required a team effort. It pointless charging into battle alone on your steed only to be speared or cut down by enemy arrow.

Like any military exercise, you always learn from your mistakes and defeats. Next time you will be better prepared. The Norman's developed training to a fine art.

The photographs help to explain further.

The most important aspect of Norman cavalry training was in the time that they spent together as a group. Many years together moulded the team into a highly trained unit that could combine with other Norman units to make a mounted war force.

The unit was known as a CONROY. A Conroy usually consisted of ten men who trained together, ate together, fought together and even died together. It was this closeness that gave them their power. They knew each member as a brother and could almost second guess the actions of his colleagues. This was so important when fighting on horseback. Their horsemanship was second to none at the time.

A Norman co-ordinated Conroy mounted charge was usually undertaken as two groups of five. This was considered   important if any of the front five should fall in battle. The distance of the rear five was such,  that in full gallop,  they would be able to avoid any of the front rank men and horses that were down.

The third photograph shows all ten men ready to engage the enemy with banner, shields and spears.

Look carefully at the shields. You may notice that some of them are the same. It is not that these people are related but that they belong to the same CONROY. The coats of arms are usually thought to belong to the rider. It was not always necessarily so.

The horses you see here are a product of the 20th century. Norman horses would have been smaller and stockier. More like the English Shetland ponies. The small black and white mini shier horse in photograph four is probably closest to actuality. The Norman Horse had to be extremely strong and resilient. During the Battle of Hastings, it would have required the CONROY to remain mounted and vigilant for up to ten hours. This put a tremendous strain on both horse and rider. Remember that William had to march his force 10Km north before he even met Harold. The weight of the armour, sword and saddle increased the burden by 30 or 40 KG.

In photographs four, five and six, notice how the kite shaped shields are designed to protect the riders left leg. Notice also, in photograph four, how it is strapped to his left arm with leather thongs.   The kite shields are on the left side in all cases. The reason is that most people are right handed. This allows the rider to control the horse with the left hand and fight with a sword or spear with the right. I have been unable to ascertain if this was a Norman pre-requisite, or you could reverse this if you were left handed.

 

The use of the long spear became a fine art. There were two ways of using it. Underarm or overarm. If overarm was used it was likely the spear would have been thrown. This tactic was probably used by the Norman cavalry at Hastings due to the extremely hilly nature of the battle site and their   inability to penetrate the  Saxon shield wall.

The underarm use of the spear relies on certain conditions being met. Firstly- there is no shield wall with spearmen. Charging such a defence would be suicide. Secondly - underarm spearing requires that the spear be withdrawn -  if possible,  from the victim. This creates a great force on the rider which could unseat him backwards going in and forwards on withdrawal.

To avoid the rider being unseated a special saddle was developed. Photographs four and six indicate this quite well. The saddle is wooden and is in the shape of a large letter U. You can appreciate how this helps the rider stay mounted during the thrust and how he has the same help from his saddle on extraction of his spear.

Notice that the top of his saddle has a lip that can be gripped if he is using a sword. This allows him to reach out without falling off or harming his steed during sword swipes at the enemy.

Norman armour usually consisted of a three quarter length chain mail suite with leather undersuit and wrapped leather leg thongs. The chainmail suit also covered the head and neck and was topped off with a iron helmet with nose protection.

The swords would not be visible as they are protected by the kite shields. They are secured by a leather fastening known as a baldric.

Despite the undoubted skill of the Norman cavalry, they were at a disadvantage and of little use during the initial battle. After the failure of the Norman archers to break the shield wall, they had limited success galloping up the hill,  releasing their spears and turning back for another. It was only when the Saxon shield wall was finally broken could the cavalry mop up those housecarls that surrounded the dying or dead Harold and others that remained on the battlefield.

The battle is recounted more fully in that section.

 

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copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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