Italian Renaissance Cavalry



In the early years of the fifteenth century, Italian warfare was certainly affected by the absence of any large bodies of highly trained infantry. There was no lasting equivalent to the English archers or later the Swiss pike squares in Italian warfare. Thus there was no pressure on Italian cavalry commanders to dismount their men-at-arms or otherwise adapt their methods. The basic unit of Italian cavalry forces remained until about 1450 the three-man lance. This was not an all-round fighting unit of the type that the French and Burgundian lances became, in which archers and crossbow-men supported the man-at-arms. The Italian lance remained fundamentally a cavalry unit and, in a certain sense, had a social as well as a military justification. In the early fifteenth century the type of three-man lance attributed to Hawkwood, in which two similarly armed men-at-arms were accompanied by a page, was still common. But this had developed in the context of men-at-arms fighting on foot and as this became less common so the lance tended to change to a structure of one man-at-arms with a less well armoured sergeant and a page. Increasingly the main task of both the followers was to ‘service’ the leader of the lance, to groom, hold and lead his horses, maintain his arms and armour, provide his food and carry his messages. As long as the needs of the man-at-arms varied little, the size of his entourage remained static.

But after 1450 the three-man lance was no longer the rule, particularly when armies were put on a war footing. At first the changes were informal, and the only indication of them comes from contracts which laid down the minimum number of men-at-arms in a given body of cavalry. Increasingly this number represented less than one-third, and the references to such men as ‘true men-at-arms’ (armigeri veri) or ‘helmets’ (elmetti) would suggest that fighting men other than the traditional heavily armed man-at-arms were appearing amongst the lances. That it also meant an increase in the size of the lance is clear from specific references to four-man lances in Florentine and Milanese contracts in the 1470’s, and to the five-man corazza in papal contracts in the 1460’s.

The corazza was clearly a development from the lance, and the fact that it was first used in the papal army about 1464 suggests that perhaps the recent presence of Angevin troops in Naples, organised into six-man lances, may have influenced this Italian innovation. However, whether the new formation in fact imitated the French lance in including crossbowmen and transforming itself into an all-round fighting unit seems unlikely. No evidence has yet come to light of the exact composition of the corazza or the enlarged lance, but it seems most probable that it differed little in function from the old three-man lance. The needs of the man-at-arms were changing by this time; the growing weight of armour of both man and horse meant that war-horses tired more quickly and a man-at-arms had to change mounts frequently during a battle. This meant more horses and more attendants to look after them and lead them. At the same time there was a tendency, as men-at-arms became more heavily armoured, for their opponents to strike at their mounts. This had been considered ‘bad war’ in the early fifteenth century, but by the later years was accepted practice. The result of this also was to increase the number of horses and attendants needed by each man-at-arms. There were therefore clear reasons for the expansion of the Italian lance without it necessarily changing its nature, and, given the fact that supporting light cavalry and infantry units were developing outside the traditional framework of the lance, it seems likely that the lance or corazza continued to serve the same function.

As well as the changes which were taking place in the lance around the middle of the century, there was also a move to standardise the larger units in Italian cavalry forces. The squadron of 25 lances had always been a rough guide-line for cavalry organisation, and the larger condottiere companies had tended to be organised roughly on this basis. But in the days of the greater independence of the companies around the beginning of the fifteenth century, it was the company itself which had been the normal battle unit. Given the immense differences in size of the companies, this was too untidy a system for the more highly organised and integrated armies of the later years. So not only were the condotte themselves becoming increasingly standardised, particularly at 50 or 100 lances, but also the squadron of 20-25 was becoming more accepted as a standard unit. By the later years of the century, armies were being assessed in numbers of squadrons rather than numbers of lances. With the increased size of the lance, this meant that the total strength of a squadron was increasing, and squadrons of the 1460’s and 1470’s would number up to 150 men. But the actual fighting strength remained much the same, around 25 men-at-arms commanded by a caposquadra or squadriere.

Another feature of the emerging organisation was the appearance of larger units known as columns. Even in the fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century armies, a number of senior condottieri had been named as ‘marshals’, and this had implied a certain subdivision of the army. But it was only in the second half of the fifteenth century that a clearly defined larger unit began to emerge and a senior condottiere was sometimes described as a colonello. The size of the column varied greatly depending on the overall size of the army, but it is clear that in the armies of this period, groups of eight to ten cavalry squadrons were being organised together, regardless of the condottiere companies of which they formed a part. Sometimes a company would be split between two columns, although this was still probably exceptional.

Apart from these developments in organisation and formation, the role and methods of heavy cavalry changed little in the fifteenth century. Greater emphasis on squadron units allowed for greater flexibility and discipline in battle, and it is certainly a misconception to think of the mass frontal cavalry charge as being the main tactical manoeuvre of Italian heavy cavalry. But they remained basically heavily armoured lancers. This does not mean that they were the cumbersome, robot-like figures, beloved of epic film makers, who had to be lowered on to their horses by primitive cranes. The most sophisticated armour in Europe was produced in Italy, providing a maximum of protection compatible with freedom of movement. A suit of battle armour was fitted and articulated, and weighed little more than 20-25 kilos, while the accompanying helmet would have weighed about two kilos. The inconvenience of such armour stemmed more from lack of ventilation than weight and led to the very considerable problems of campaigning and fighting in the heat of an Italian summer.

The fact remained, however, that heavy cavalry was an inflexible component of all fifteenth-century armies, and it was inevitable that there should be attempts to develop types of light cavalry for the variety of tasks created by more sophisticated methods of warfare. In a certain sense the lightly armed, mounted followers of the men-at-arms could be described as light cavalry, and the number of these was increasing. But this would be misleading, as these were not fighting men, and the definition of cavalry must be men who fight on horseback. However, such a definition does create the problem of how to classify those who moved to battle and campaigned on horseback but dismounted to fight. Clearly such troops were as mobile as cavalry, and this was the point of mounting them, but in battle they became infantry and were controlled and organised as such. Here one is thinking particularly of the mounted crossbowmen, and later mounted hand-gun men and arquebusiers, who appeared in ever increasing numbers in Italian armies. Such men did not form part of the lances but were organised in units of their own. From 1430 onwards, however, a number of condottiere companies included groups of mounted cross-bowmen, and entirely separate companies of them were also being formed. While it is probably true that such troops normally dismounted to fight, their mounted potential was clearly important, quite apart from just getting them to the scene of a battle. Scouting, foraging, and pursuit were the essential tasks of light cavalry, and these could all be performed by mounted crossbowmen, who were equipped with sword and dagger as well as their bows.

However, an even more distinctive and effective type of light cavalry emerged in Italy with the introduction by Venice of Albanian stradiots recruited in her overseas empire. Venice had always made considerable use of such troops in the empire and in her wars with the Turks, and it was during and following the long war of 1463–79 with the Turks that stradiots began to appear in Italian armies. They were mounted on light, unarmoured horses and equipped sometimes with crossbows but more commonly with light lances and javelins. Their armour was limited to breastplate and shield. Clearly the possession of organised units of such troops gave an army much greater manoeuvrability and flexibility in battle, and a number of the leading condottieri of the later years of the century perceived these possibilities. It is true, on the other hand, that the Albanians had a reputation for ill discipline and, as one of their prime functions was to carry out wide encircling movements aimed at an enemy’s rear and his baggage train, this was a defect of no little consequence. However, both in the mounted crossbowmen and the stradiot units, the Italians had seen the way forward in cavalry development, and the light horse were to become increasingly significant during the Italian Wars.

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