Monday, September 5, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: Fighting Knights

So knights are fast, powerful, and hard to kill. But not invincible: separate one from his horse, and he's no faster than anybody else. Separate him from his buddies, attack him from the sides and rear, and he'll go down almost as fast as an unarmored infantryman.

And armor and horses are expensive, which means there are always more non-knights than knights on the battlefield.

Well, so what? What does that mean for the hopeful commander of ordinary soldiers going up against knights? In the thirteenth century, they are still the baddest cats on the field.

How do we get past their strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses?

Answers to that question began to reveal themselves early in the fourteenth century. In some cases, it was a matter of taking advantage of terrain, or augmenting existing terrain to make it inhospitable to cavalry. At the Battle of Courtrai in 1302, Flemish soldiers dug small pits in the field between themselves and their French adversaries; the pits broke up the French cavalry charge when horses stumbled and broke legs, exposing the dismounted knights to Flemish counter-charges.

Other solutions focused on hardware: crossbows could propel bolts with enough force to penetrate armor, but were slow to load. Maces, war-hammers, and other heavy striking weapons were designed specifically to puncture and smash armor. Pikes were long spears that negated the knight's reach and made it easier for infantry to attack him without first bringing him down from his horse.

But the two best-known weapons that contributed to the decline of knights on the battlefield were the longbow and the halberd. The longbow did not have the power or range of the crossbow and was harder to use, but a skilled bowman could loose (never fire unless he was shooting flaming arrows) five to ten arrows for every bolt a crossbowman sent back at him. Its accuracy and rate of fire devastated knightly cavalry charges at battles like Crecy and Agincourt.

The halberd was, in the most basic sense, a can opener. A combination axe-blade, hooked spike, and spear-head mounted on a six- to eight-foot shaft, the halberd was invented specifically to defeat armor. Its length gave the dismounted man a reach advantage over the man on horseback; its spike could be used to catch a man's armor and drag him from the saddle; and its axe and spear-point could be used to penetrate armor or stab through the gaps in a helmet or into the vulnerable spots at a knight's neck or armpits or groin. The Swiss, who invented the weapon, showed Europe how to use it at the battles of Mortgarten and Laupen; Swiss mercenaries were some of the most sought-after soldiers in Europe until well into the sixteenth century, largely on the strength of the weapon they carried.

So the tides of battle were already turning against the mounted knight by the beginning of the fourteenth century--well before gunpowder appeared on the battlefields of Europe. Next time, we'll study one of these battles in more detail.

Then we'll start looking at how gunpowder changed warfare forever.

Now go get your nerd on!

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