ELITE WARRIOR OF THE DARK AGES: NORMAN KNIGHT
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 876 a Viking chieftain named Rollo arrived in northern France, raiding along the Seine Valley. The origins of this leader are disputed. He is claimed by both Denmark and by Norway. The most likely identity of Rollo is found in Norwegian and Icelandic sources, where he is called Ganger Hrolf (Hrolf, "the Walker", so-named because he was reputedly too tall to ride a horse), a son of Rognvald Eysteinsson , Earl of Møre in Western Norway.
A story is told of the homage ceremony between Rolf (who took the baptismal name of Robert) and King Charles, that is illustrative of the future turbulent relationship between the Dukes of Normandy and their titular lords, the Kings of France. According to legend, the ceremony of homage required Rolf to kiss the foot of King Charles. Mounted on his horse, the king rode up to where Rolf stood and extended his foot. Rolf took the foot in hand and raised it to his mouth, in the process causing the king to tumble from his saddle onto the ground; much to the merriment of Rolf's rough-humored Viking followers! (Another version of this story has the Frankish king seated on a chair, and Rollo having a follower kissing the foot of the king in his stead; up-ending Charles in the process.)
Marrying local French wives, by the second generation French had become the language of the Normans. However, though these Norse and Danish newcomers gave up their language and their longships, they had lost little of their Viking spirit. Taking to horseback, they soon mastered the tactics of Frankish heavy cavalry; and perhaps improved upon them. Within a century, Norman adventurers were taking their swords to fight for pay in foreign armies, where their services were in high demand. They also became militant supporters of the Catholic Church; in Italy becoming the Popes greatest ally against the German Emperor.
The heart of the Norman cavalry was the Norman knights. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess and historian, wrote that the charge of a "Frankish knight" was so powerful they could "pierce the walls of Babylon". Her reference was based upon Byzantine experience with the Normans (Byzantines and Saracens alike tended to call all western Europeans "Franks", regardless of ethnicity); so she is clearly speaking of these formidable fighting men.
Sometime between the 10th and 11th century, two changes occurred in cavalry equipment among the Franks (and Normans) that greatly increased their effectiveness. The first had to do with the saddle, and the stirrup attached to it. During this period, the front and back of the saddle grew higher; providing the knight with more support upon impact when charging with his lance, and a more secure seat when being struck. The stirrups grew longer, allowing the knight to stand rather than sit in the saddle. This was particularly important when striking with a sword, particularly in a downward motion against infantry. These improvements in horse furniture encouraged the second innovation, this one a weapon's technique that would revolutionize cavalry warfare.
Since ancient times, the cavalry lance had been a thrusting or throwing weapon. The horseman so equipped either hurled it at the enemy before impact; and then continued to fight with sword, mace or axe. Or he retained it in hand and used it as a thrusting spear; either under-handed or overhand (and sometimes even two-handed, sans shield).
However, sometime during this period the lance began to be couched under the arm, pressed firmly between arm and side. This is familiar to most today as the classic "jousting" technique. However, it was one that only became possible by the invention of the high-backed saddle and long stirrups. Since it first came into use during the "Norman Century", it is tempting to suppose a correlation between the invention of this technique and appearance of the Norman knight. Perhaps the reason the Normans became the premiere heavy cavalry and dominated the battlefields of 11th century Europe was their pioneering of this effective technique. (Though it should be noted that even up till the Battle of Hastings in 1066 most Norman knights were still using an overhand thrusting or throwing technique; so the couched-lance method didn't come to predominate until the 12th century.)
For defense the Norman knight wore a mail hauberk that covered his torso, extending to his knee; and covering at least his upper arms. Over the 11th century, the sleeves grew longer, and by the mid-12th century most well-armed knights had added mittens of mail and chausses (pants) of mail as well. For active defense, a kite-shaped shield covered his left side from shoulder to shin.
These warhorses were used only in battle; smaller, more docile "palreys" being ridden for other occasions. The destrier was usually a stallion, fierce powerful and headstrong. Trained for war, these were just as dangerous to a foe as their rider; biting, kicking or trampling an enemy. The terrific impact of a charging Norman knight, as described so picturesquely by Anna Comnena, came from the combined weight of a 250lbs knight in mail hauberk, mounted upon 1,500lbs of galloping stallion; all the force of which was massed behind a tightly couched, 9 foot lance. Few warriors could withstand the charge of Norman knights in tight formation.
Norman knights trained in small groups of 5 to 10 horsemen. These, in turn, formed elements of the main tactical unit: the conroi of 20-30 men. These trained to charge as a unit, in very close order; to maneuver, to wheel, to change formation, and even to used the sophisticated tactic of the "feigned flight". (This tactic, used most famously at the Battle of Hastings, is often attributed to the Norman's Breton allies, or learned while fighting against them. But this tactic was used by the Norman's Viking ancestors centuries before Hastings; and the Normans used this tactic in 1053 at the Battle of St. Aubin.) Each conroi maintained its integrity and cohesion on the battlefield by forming around a unit gonfalon, under the command of a senior knight or minor lord to whom all owed fealty. It was the cohesion and flexibility of these small, tight wedges of Norman cavalry on the battlefield that made the Normans so effective and dangerous a fighting force.
Immediately across the English Channel, new lands opened up following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. (See 1066: A BLOODY AND MOMENTOUS YEAR!)
Following Duke William the Bastard's successful invasion and conquest, the Normans became the ruling barons of England. All over the land, motte-and-bailey forts grew up; bases from which Norman garrisons controlled the land.
In all of these campaigns, from 1066 to Strongbow's battles in Ireland, as well as the campaigns of the Normans in Italy and the East (see below), the Normans triumphed in part because of their use of combined arms tactics. The combination of shock provided by the powerful charge of Norman heavy cavalry, with the missile attack of archers or crossbowmen proved irresistible in every major battle of the Norman Era.
THE NORMANS IN ITALY
According to Amatus of Montecassino, Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem in 999 called in at the port of Salerno in time break a siege by Saracens from North Tunisia. These Normans fought so valiantly that Prince Guaimar III requested they stay and take service. Though these demurred, they offered instead to tell others back home of the prince's offer. Thus began the Norman involvement in the south of Italy; first in the service of the various Lombard princes, and later as conquistadors carving out their own duchy.
In 1016 a party of some 250 Norman adventures came as pilgrims to the shrine to Michael the Archangel at Monte Gargano. They were led by a group Gilbert Buatère and his four brothers. While there, they were persuaded by the Lombard prince, Melus of Bari, to join him and other Lombard lords in an attempt to drive their Byzantine overlords from Apulia. The Lombard army, spearheaded by the Normans, won five victories over the local Byzantine forces.
In response, the Emperor Basil I dispatched elite forces from the capital, Constantinople. These including a force of the elite Varangian Guard. This is the first time (but not the last) that Norman and Varangian would face-off against each other; and its easy to suppose that a rivalry grew-up between these two elite forces; both of Viking descent. At the Battle of Cannae, site of Hannibal's greatest victory over the Romans, the two armies met. The Byzantines won a decisive victory, and the Normans suffered heavily, with only 10 of the 250 Normans surviving. Among the dead was Gilbert himself, along with his brother Osmond.
Returning to Italy, the Normans joined with the Lombards in fomenting a general revolt against the Byzantines in Apulia. In a series of battles in 1041 at Olivento, Monte Maggiore (fought near the earlier Norman defeat at Cannae), and at the Battle of Montepeloso the Normans under William d'Hauteville shattered the Byzantine forces and forever broke their power in Italy. In their place, the Normans took over all Apulia except Bari. After William's death in 1046, the Normans were led by each of the d'Hauteville brother's in turn: first Drogo, then Humphrey and then Robert.
In May of 1081, Robert led his last campaign; this time crossing the Adriatic Sea and invading the Byzantine Empire. The Norman fleet of 150 ships carried an army (allegedly) numbering 30,000 men (though it was unlikely to have surpassed 10,000), including 1,300 Norman knights. With him was his son, Bohemond, the future Count of Taranto and leader of the First Crusade.
The Eastern Roman Empire was in a much weakened state following the disaster at Manzikert ten years earlier; and from the civil wars that had followed. The new Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, was a vigorous and competent administrator, and had proven himself an able general in his rise to the throne. But he was unprepared for the Norman attack.
Robert laid siege to Durazzo/Dyrrhachium, the chief port of Byzantine Illyria, in May 1081. The city was well defended, resting on a narrow peninsula running parallel to the coast. The garrison was ably commanded by the Roman noble, George Palaeologus. The town held out through the summer, aided and resupplied by the combined Byzantine and Venetian fleets.
By September, Alexius had prepared a large relief army and marched on Durazzo. According to Anna Comnena, Alexius had about 20,000 men. It included the Tagmata regiments stationed at Constantinople; 1,000 Varangian Guardsmen; and some 8,000 Turk and Pecheneg light horse archers. The ranks of the Varangians by this time in history were heavily filled with émigré Anglo-Saxons; fleeing the Norman conquest of their homeland and eager to gain revenge for their defeat at Hastings, 15 years earlier.
On the 18th of October, 1081, Norman and Byzantine armies met in the Battle of Durazzo. Both wings of the Byzantine army were eventually defeated and fled the battlefield. Though the Varangians in the center were initially successful, they advanced too far; out of support by the and were forced to halt by charges of the Norman horsemen. Guiscard brought up crossbowmen, closely supported by Norman knights threatening to charge. This forced the Varangians to halt and form shieldburg; which proved incapable of withstanding the powerful close rang fire from the crossbowmen. Alternating heavy cavalry charges with missile attack, the Normans inflicted heavy casualties on the Varangians. Finally, these broke and the survivors fled into a nearby church; which the Normans set on fire.
Robert returned to Italy after the fall of Durazzo, leaving Bohemond to carry on the campaign. He died 4 years later. Bohemond was thwarted by Alexius in a mobile campaign in western Greece; and eventually was forced to retire back to Italy.
The Norman knights can trace their roots back to both the Viking warriors who filled the ranks of the Jomsvikings, the Huscarls, and that of their oft-rivals, the Varangian Guard ; as well as the Frankish horsemen, the Caballarii of Charlemagne. In him is seen the daring and ferocious courage of the Viking warrior combined with the superb horsemanship and mobility of the Frankish heavy cavalry. At Hastings and Durazzo the Normans decisively defeated champions of the Dark Ages, fighting in the Viking-style; ushering in the Middle Ages, and the dominance of heavy cavalry on the European battlefield.