Medieval Campaign Organisation and Warfare II

Fulk le Réehin, count of Anjou (1067–1109) described how he fought his brother for the county over a period of eight years:

But still he attacked me yet again, laying siege to my fortress of Brissac. There I rode against him with those princes whom God in His clemency, permitted to join me, and I fought with him a pitched battle in which, by God’s grace, I overcame him; and he was captured and handed over to me, and a thousand of his men with him.

The repeated invocation of God’s name shows how few illusions Fulk had about the chances of battle.

Duke William of Normandy shared his wariness, but in the expedition against England battle was unavoidable. Its risks probably underlay the unwillingness already noted of some of the Norman lords to join in the enterprise. William’s attack on England enjoyed great good fortune. His preparations had taken a very long time, yet he found exceptionally good weather very late in the year for the crossing on 27 September 1066. In the passage from Dives to St Valéry his fleet had suffered losses, but none are recorded for the main crossing on 27 September and this suggests that the favourable breeze that day did not exceed Force 3.5, about 10 mph. In any greater wind his precious horses would probably have suffered losses for they were housed in ordinary transports, not ships specially designed for the purpose. It seems likely that he had sent out light ships to watch the English fleet and coasts and so would have known of the partial collapse of the enemy defences on 8 September and probably also of Harold’s march north. Since William seems to have been well aware of Norse interest in England and had encouraged Tosti, Harold’s estranged brother, in his attacks on England, this was not mere good luck. William’s diplomacy to isolate Harold had been intensive and he was able to unfurl a papal banner before his army. After landing at Pevensey William soon realised that Hastings was a better site, and moved there a day later. Immediately he began to fortify his bases, building castles at both to protect themselves and provide safe harbour for the fleet. At the same time he raided the countryside, a process shown vividly in the Tapestry. It is possible that this ravaging, in Harold’s own earldom, was intended to provoke the enemy into an overhasty attack, but the feeding of such a large host would have compelled it anyway. With a secure base William could dominate the Sussex coast, but in the longer run his situation was not very favourable, for the English fleet would soon threaten his communications which in any case were at risk as the weather deteriorated and the autumn storms blew up. William wanted a quick solution, as he had probably known all along; he needed to seek battle and to capitalise quickly on his strength and the high morale of his army buoyed up by promises of English land. On the other hand, he hardly dared risk deep penetration of an enemy hinterland where he would find difficulties enough later, even unopposed. But he was ready for battle. According to William of Poitiers, a Breton servant of the Confessor, Robert Fitz-Wimarch, sent a message warning him of the coming of the Saxon army and urging him to take refuge in his fortifications, but William rejected this advice eagerly stating his desire for battle. It was William’s great good fortune that Harold played into his hands, but this was a miscalculation brilliantly exploited by the Norman duke.

Harold’s victory over the Danes at York on 25 September was, by all accounts, a bloody affair which, coming on top of the losses at Fulford on 20 September, must seriously have reduced the available effectives in the Anglo-Saxon army. Traditionally, he is supposed to have heard of William’s landing on or shortly after 1 October and then to have been obliged to retrace his thirteen-day 190-mile march to London, arriving at Hastings on 13 October. If this chronology is in any way correct, then we can suppose that not all of his army came with him, for Ordericus says he spent five days in London raising forces. This may or may not be precisely true, but Harold would have needed some time to concentrate troops and surely no considerable army could have moved so far so fast. Harold then set off and reached Battle on the evening of 13 October. We do not know what his intentions were. It is possible that he hoped to take the Normans by surprise as he had the Norse and this was certainly what the Normans later thought, even fearing a night attack which caused the army to spend an uncomfortable and sleepless night. It is equally possible that he wanted to force William’s army to concentrate by its fortifications, cutting it off from food – a tactic we have noted used by William himself. In either case his error was to march as close to his enemy as Battle, a mere seven miles from the main enemy encampment. This was the edge of the wooded lands and he could go no further for, like all Anglo-Saxon forces, his army was used to fighting on foot – although its leading members travelled on horseback. On the open Downs such an infantry force could be cut to pieces by the Norman cavalry. The error was compounded because William pounced on it. For William had been at pains to keep a close watch for enemy movements – his emphasis on good reconnaissance was a life-long characteristic. Early on the morning of 14 October he marched quickly to Battle and deployed his army catching Harold unawares, as the Chronicle E has it: ‘before all the army had come’ and D more interestingly: ‘And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him with the men who were willing to support him’. Florence of Worcester says that only half Harold’s army had assembled and only a third deployed when the Normans struck.

Harold managed to seize a strong position at the mouth of a funnel through the woods on the main road by the present village of Battle. He had a strong position for defence and his men were determined. But they had no way of attacking the enemy who could retreat easily and attack once more, unless they obligingly panicked. Nor could Harold’s forces retreat for the enemy were upon them. Harold’s impetuous rush forward meant that his army was immobilised, unable to go forward or back, and though it barred William’s route inland the initiative in the forthcoming battle would lie with the Normans. This is the force of William of Poitiers’s famous comment: ‘What a strange contest then began, in which one of the protagonists attacked freely and at will, the other enduring the assault as though rooted to the ground’. Moreover, there was an additional problem springing from Harold’s haste; his army appears to have had very few archers. This does not mean that they were without missile throwers – javelins, axes and clubs fly through the air in the Tapestry. But the bow outranged all these: it was a striking vulnerability, and William’s deployment was organised to exploit it. His army advanced in three lines with archers thrown forward, followed by armoured foot and then the cavalry. In addition his line was divided into three divisions, with the Bretons on the left, the Normans in the centre and the French on the right. In effect William was assaulting a fortress – the close-packed Anglo-Saxon and Danish infantry settled in a strong position on top of the hill. Of these many were professionals as well armed as their enemies, but as the Tapestry shows there were many lesser folk, lacking anything except a spear.

William clearly intended that his archers should weaken the enemy by their fire, probably from about fifty yards, protected from enemy sally by the presence of heavily armed infantry who would then charge in to the assault making breaches which the cavalry could exploit. The strength of the Saxon position and the effectiveness of their weapons balked the Normans. The cavalry then joined in the mêlée until, on the left, the Bretons were repulsed and pursued by the English: William rallied his men by showing them that the rumour of his death was untrue and they fell upon the exposed English with great slaughter. It was perhaps a result of this near disaster that William resorted to feigned flight, twice drawing out substantial forces of his enemy who were then cut to pieces. This attrition was reinforced by direct assault on the English position, supported by volleys of arrows. In his description of this final stage of the battle, William of Poitiers makes it clear that the English continued to fight hard but were gradually surrounded, losses forcing the contraction of their line. However, it was probably the death of Harold and his brothers which led to the eventual flight.

The battle illustrates the skills of a late eleventh-century commander. The marshalling of resources speaks volumes for the duke’s ability to exploit the peasant surplus. Many of the soldiers in the Norman army were paid professionals from all over France, and there were similar people, English and Danish, in Harold’s force. William sought battle, but he had obviously planned to fortify his bases and to live off the country. He kept a close watch on his enemy who failed to surprise him. Unable to advance or retreat, Harold was himself caught, on the morning of the 14 October, by the speed with which the Normans advanced and deployed, but he managed to seize a strong position. The Norman order of battle was well designed, for the assault and the mobility which had given them the initiative was used with skill to erode the English strength. A feature of the battle was William’s control of his army. He led by example, an essential quality of a medieval commander, having three horses killed under him, while at the same time supervising his forces and encouraging them even at the very end when some English made a stand at the Malfosse. Harold’s failure to await reinforcements meant that he lacked archers and so exposed his men cruelly.

The decisive arm in the battle was, however, the Norman cavalry. It was not that they could charge home sweeping all before them, for clearly they could not. The Tapestry shows them not so much charging into the enemy as jabbing and hacking at them. The mass charge with the lances couched, which would be the feature of cavalry warfare later in the twelfth century, was not a feature of Hastings: in the Tapestry some figures carry their lances couched, but for the most part those with spears jab at their enemies overarm or underarm, or even throw them, while others hack with their swords. The question of when this style of ‘shock tactics’ was developed, with riders én masse in close order clamping their long and heavy lances under their arms, has been much debated. It is now generally accepted that the technique was only in its infancy in 1066, but views of when it became a widely accepted method vary from about 1100 to the 1140s. Inevitably much of the discussion has been based on medieval illustrations and their interpretation, a factor which has also complicated discussion of the size of horses. However, the illustrations used too often show individual warriors and discussions have focused on these portrayals. In fact mounted soldiers must quite often have tucked their lances under their arms; it was a natural and useful way of using the weapon, though others could be just as useful as the Bayeux Tapestry shows. What was novel was the employment of this technique by large numbers in disciplined units, a matter on which the illustrative material is not very helpful. It would appear to the present writer that the First Crusade represents a critical stage in the evolution of this technique, as will be indicated later. The Normans who fought at Hastings probably owed their cohesion and discipline, which enabled them to manoeuvre as in the feigned flights, to long practice in fighting alongside their neighbours grouped around the local lord. This was not the triumph of cavalry over infantry as portrayed by Oman, rather it was the triumph of a good commander who used all the means at his disposal to break down a courageous enemy. His campaign was methodical and his battle formation well adapted for its purpose. The archers weakened the enemy and were guarded by heavy foot who then moved to the assault followed up by cavalry. The resilience of Harold’s force blunted this plan but William was able to extemporise the feigned flights which weakened his enemy for the final bloody assault in which, amongst the English, it seemed as though the dead as they fell moved more than the living. It was not the shock value of the cavalry which triumphed, but their disciplined mobility and courage. Unbroken infantry was always highly dangerous to cavalry. At Bourgethéroulde in 1124 some of the rebels rejoiced when the English king’s household troops dismounted, but the experienced Amaury de Montfort took a more realistic view. ‘A mounted soldier who has dismounted with his men will not fly from the field – he will either die or conquer’. At Tinchebrai in 1106 Henry I of England (1099–1135) dismounted much of his force and it was these that halted Robert Curthose’s last charge. Indeed, the value of infantry in anchoring a line of defence was always recognised – Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886–912) had suggested that infantry be posted behind cavalry in the line of battle so that the latter could withdraw behind them if things went badly, and King Baldwin of Jerusalem (1118–32) would use just this formation at Hab in 1119. An eleventh-century Spanish Muslim writer, Abu Bakr at-Turtusi suggested a rather more complex though not dissimilar tactical formation:

The tactics we use and which seem the most efficacious against our enemy are these. The infantry with their antelope [hide] shields, lances and iron-tipped javelins are placed, kneeling in ranks. Their lances rest obliquely on their shoulders, the shaft touching the ground behind them, the point directed towards the enemy. Each one kneels on his left knee with his shield in the air. Behind the infantry are the picked archers who, with their arrows, can pierce coats of mail. Behind the archers are the cavalry. When the Christians charge, the infantry remains in position, kneeling as before. As soon as the enemy comes into range, the archers let loose a hail of arrows while the infantry throw their javelins and receive the charge on the points of their lances. Then infantry and archers open their ranks to right and left and through the gaps they create, the cavalry rushes the enemy and inflicts upon him what Allah wills.

In recognising the limitations of cavalry and the value of infantry we need to bear in mind that the horses used at Hastings were comparatively small animals. Recent research suggests that in the late eleventh century a horse of twelve hands was quite large, and one of fourteen or more exceptional. To put this into perspective, a Shetland is ten hands, a twelve-hand horse would now be classified as a pony, and fourteen a small hunter. These estimates are based on examining the representations of horses in the Bayeux Tapestry, particularly in relation to their riders. In the Tapestry all the horsemen arc riding ‘long’, that is with their legs at almost full-stretch and feet in stirrups fully extended, a configuration which gives stability. In all cases the rider’s legs project well below the body of the horse, suggesting a small animal. It is possible that this is an artistic convention but the story of Richard, son of Asclctin of Aversa, who liked to ride horses so small that his feet almost touched the ground is well-known. Moreover, similar representations are known in quite different contexts; an eleventh-century Spanish marble relief and the early twelfth-century Commentaries of Beatus (BM Add 11695) arc examples and many more could be cited. It is interesting that in the Aquileia mural of a crusader with spear couched pursuing and killing a Saracen, no difference in the size of horses is suggested, and this seems to be generally true of early twelfth-century pictures. William’s knights charging uphill against steady infantry must have needed good nerves and it is doubtful if they were aware of the ‘shock’ effect which later writers would ascribe to them. What happened along the crest of that hill where Battle Abbey now stands must have resembled the sixteenth-century ‘push at pike’, not the charge of some Hollywood Light Brigade. William exploited his good luck and, decisively, used the mobility of his cavalry with great skill. But the fact that cavalry was decisive does not mean that it was totally dominant, as later experience mentioned here shows. William was certainly careful to bring plenty of foot-soldiers with him. Battle was always chancy – William was able to rally his men against one early moment of panic which could have destroyed him. Once this crisis was over he held the initiative and could plan his attacks and he did so to great effect. Hastings was a decisive battle largely because the killing of Harold and his brothers, together with a large number of thegns whose deaths came on top of the butchery at Fulford and Stamford, deprived the Anglo-Saxon realm of much of its leadership. Harold himself paid the price for his folly in engaging too soon. Even so, the battle did not deliver the whole realm to William. He would soon be crowned, but it was only by terrible devastation in the north and covering the land with a network of castles that he was able to secure his hold. This process of conquest was greatly facilitated by the lack of castles in England. The English learned – Hereward built a castle at Ely in 1071 – but by then it was too late and William’s long war of attrition, which followed Hastings, was on the brink of success.

The conquest of England is not isolated as an example of large scale and complex military effort in late eleventh century Europe. Only a few years later Robert Guiscard, the Norman conqueror of South Italy, launched a great expedition to capture the Eastern Roman Empire. This involved the raising of a fleet and a great army which was kept in the field for some four years from 1081–5. Guiscard had been seeking a Byzantine marriage for his family and when his efforts collapsed be took advantage of the internal weakness of the empire in the early years of Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118). It was an extraordinarily bold act, for Robert’s brother, Roger, would not complete the conquest of Sicily until 1091, while he himself had promised to aid Pope Gregory VII (1073–85) against Henry IV of Germany. In these circumstances the Byzantines were able to create diplomatic difficulties by subsidising Henry IV, inflaming hostility amongst the many Norman leaders who had resented the Hauteville domination, some of whom were actually employed as mercenaries by Alexius, and by playing upon Venetian concern about a Norman dominion on both sides of the Adriatic. This diplomatic background severely hampered the Norman campaign. War opened late in 1080 when Bohemond landed at Avlona with the vanguard of an army 15,000 strong whose core was a purely Norman force of 1,300 knights. By 17 June 1081, after seizing Corfu, Robert and Bohemond were before Dyrrachium, the western terminus of the Via Egnetia, the great road to Constantinople, held for Alexius by George Paleologus. A close siege was established around Dyrrachium with the construction of a great leather-covered siege-tower. Against it, Paleologus built a tower on the wall equipped with wooden beams to hold off the Norman attack, and as the two towers engaged, his troops sallied out and burned the siege-tower. In July 1081 the Venetians largely destroyed the Norman fleet, and Guiscard was now faced with a strong Greek army under Alexius which by 15 October was close to Dyrrachium. Guiscard’s situation was now extremely difficult, his communications were cut and an enemy force was in the field. Alexius debated whether to attack, or to establish a counter-blockade which would starve the Normans. There was much to commend either course of action. The problem with blockade was that it would take time and Alexius had problems elsewhere, and it was probably because of this that he advanced to battle on 18 October 1081. Guiscard burned the remnant of his fleet, forcing his troops to fight. He seems to have surprised Alexius by leaving his camp early in the morning, so that it was captured by the garrison of Dyrrachium and other forces sent by Alexius. As the Greek army deployed, the Varangian guard, numbering in its ranks many Anglo-Saxons, prepared for action. Then they charged, contrary to Alexius’s orders and though they pushed back the horse and infantry under the count of Bari, they were overextended and defeated by an infantry charge in the flank. Many of Alexius’s compound force, including the Turks and the large Slav force under their ruler Bodin, then fled making no effort to intervene as the Normans fell upon Alexius in the centre. Guiscard’s victory opened the way for the fall of Dyrrachium in February 1082 enabling the Normans to advance via Deabolis to Kastoria in the spring of 1082. At this point Guiscard was forced to return to Italy by revolt in his own lands, fanned by Byzantine money and by Henry IV’s assault on Rome which Alexius had encouraged, leaving Bohemond to conduct a campaign whose immediate purpose was probably to secure a firm base for further advance. Although a number of cities fell and Bohemond twice defeated Alexius’s efforts to relieve Joannina the Norman expedition was now in difficulties. Bohemond failed to seize Ochrida and Berroea, while the fort at Moglena fell to a Byzantine counterattack. Skopia, Pelagonia and Trikala, amongst others, fell, but the siege of Larissa was undertaken late in 1082 at a time when there had been desertions and treachery in the Norman force. These symptoms of exhaustion prepared the way for Alexius to challenge Bohemond in the open field. His earlier experience had not been good. Anna tells us that after the defeat at Dyrrachium Alexius had decided that: ‘the first charge of the Keltic cavalry was irresistible’. In his attempts to relieve the siege of Joannina he used strategies to counter this. In his first effort he strengthened his centre with wagons mounted with poles, whose presence was intended to break up enemy cavalry assault. However, Bohemond was forewarned and attacked on the flanks. It was not a decisive defeat and the emperor returned, this time protecting his centre with caltrops, iron barbs scattered on the ground – but Bohemond again attacked on the flank. At Larissa in the spring of 1083, however, Alexius lured much of Bohemond’s force away from his camp which the Byzantines captured, thus forcing the Normans to raise the siege, although the victory left the Norman army intact. Bohemond was now faced with retreat and a discontented army which had not been paid and this forced him to return to Italy, while Alexius mopped up his garrisons. In the summer of 1083 a Venetian fleet took Dyrrachium and with the fall of Kastoria to Greek forces in November it seemed that the campaign was over. In the autumn of 1084 Robert Guiscard raised another army and a fleet of 150 ships. He defeated the Venetian fleet before Corfu, which he again seized, but his army was decimated by illness on the mainland and it dissolved totally when he died in July 1085.

Byzantine Horse Transport.

The Norman war against Byzantium was a long affair. It was almost certainly prompted by the weakness of the empire at this juncture, but Guiscard had underestimated his own problems and the range of his enemies, whose various attacks sapped his army. It became a war of attrition in which both sides were desperately short of resources. After his defeat at Dyrrachium Alexius had to resort to seizure of church wealth to raise another army. Bohemond, left in charge by his father, prosecuted a skillful campaign. The Normans continued to be a strong fighting force, but their two victories over Alexius were inconclusive, as was his sole victory over them. In the end, shortages of money and men were more acute on the Norman side than on the Greek, but it was a close-run affair. It is remarkable that the Normans of South Italy could sustain such an effort at all in the circumstances. Certainly the campaign made Bohemond’s name as a soldier.

The campaigns of William the Conqueror and Robert Guiscard were, however, somewhat unusual for the ferocity with which they were fought and the readiness of both sides to resort to battle. When the Conqueror died in 1087 he divided his land between his sons. Robert Curthose held Normandy and William II ‘Rufus’ became king of England. The third son, Henry, was given money which he used to found a lordship in the Cotentin. These dispositions were soon challenged by the brothers, each of whom hoped to gain the whole inheritance of his father. When Rufus died in a hunting accident in 1099 the youngest brother, Henry, took up the challenge with ultimate success, for he seized the English throne and then Normandy with the victory of Tinchebrai in 1106. In nearly twenty years of war Tinchebrai was the only major battle. In the first stage of the conflict, Odo of Bayeux conspired with many of the nobility of England against the king, and Robert Curthose sent Robert of Bellême and Eustace of Boulogne who seized Pevensey and Rochester. However, he failed to raise an expedition to support them and the plot fizzled out. In the next phase, William, with his far greater resources, set about seducing the duke’s vassals and thereby securing castles as bases. It was in eastern Normandy north of the Seine that William concentrated his efforts from 1089 onwards, building a strong position. Robert’s counter-offensive was supported by King Philip of France who, however, allowed himself to be bought off by William. In November 1090, the English king was able to take advantage of factional struggles in Rouen and all but seized the city. It was not until 1091 that William came in person to the scene of this desultory fighting and raiding, which were brought to an end in February 1091 by a peace between the warring brothers. This gave William a strong position in Normandy, in part at the expense of Henry’s lands in the Cotentin and inaugurated a period of rapprochement during which the two brothers tried to impose order in Normandy. By 1093, however, the two brothers were again at war and the following year William led a strong army into Normandy. This time Robert waged quite a successful campaign against William and his allies, seizing important castles and threatening his long-established hold on eastern Normandy, until Philip of France was once again bought off with English bribes. It was probably in anticipation of this campaign that in 1093 William met Robert II of Flanders and concluded a treaty under which the count of Flanders undertook to supply mercenaries to the English king. In the end, the English campaign came to a halt when Robert Curthose took the cross. Abbot Jarento of St Bénigne, the papal legate, then negotiated an arrangement whereby Robert pawned the duchy to William for three years for the sum of 10,000 marks. This freed Robert Curthose to join the crusade and provided finances for him.

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