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"Norman 'light' cavalry." Topic

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Cerdic13 Aug 2011 9:54 a.m. PST

Did such a thing really exist?

A lot of wargame figure manufacturers produce them. A lot of rules acknowledge them as a distinct troop type.

BUT. Try googling 'Norman light cavalry' and all the results are wargame related.

Is this a case of wargamers liking lots of different types of units in their armies and inventing an extra one.

All the non-wargaming related books and information I have read implies that the Normans regarded all soldiers-on-horses as just 'cavalry'. While the level of equipment may vary from individual to individual, depending on their financial resources, less well equipped troops were not segregated into separate units and given different battlefield tasks.

Your thoughts, gentlemen…

Edwulf13 Aug 2011 9:57 a.m. PST

The dark ages are a stallite interest of mine but I've never read of them having especial light troops. I'm guessing its wargamers.

Connard Sage13 Aug 2011 9:59 a.m. PST


Personal logo timurilank Supporting Member of TMP13 Aug 2011 10:02 a.m. PST

The cavalry classification are an accomodation for the Light horse auxiliaries which served the Norman Dukes, those from Brittany or the mercenaries of Italy and Sicily.

Daffy Doug13 Aug 2011 10:10 a.m. PST

The sculpts and army lists for "light cavalry" in Franco-Norman or Breton armies, are based on the Bayeux Tapestry's depictions of the same.


Daffy Doug13 Aug 2011 10:14 a.m. PST

The asserted separate role for "light cavalry", however, is pure wargamer's design. There is no evidence for such. You are right; that cavalry fought together, which would include armed and unarmed horsemen. But, I believe that at times armor was deliberately left off in order to facilitate speed and agility. In the above scene, apparently "milites" have ridden as swiftly as possible in order to capture count Conan. Thus their hauberks/byrnies are missing. Once the campaign bogs down into normal siegecraft, the armor comes back on, as the next two scenes show:



There are no more "light cavalry" after the failure to capture the count. I don't think that this is a coincidence in the design of the Tapestry….

Timbo W13 Aug 2011 1:39 p.m. PST

Any thoughts on whether the Bretons fought in a different style?

Old Glory Sponsoring Member of TMP13 Aug 2011 5:28 p.m. PST

Was the tapestry designed to be an "historical" guide for clothing, equipment,armor,etc or just a general visual account of the event? I also wonder about this when I see someone referencing a relief on some ancient structure from antiquity as to the lenghts of shields,head gear,etc?
Russ dunaway

Personal logo Cardinal Hawkwood Supporting Member of TMP14 Aug 2011 1:49 a.m. PST

well it works for me..

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP14 Aug 2011 5:05 a.m. PST

I dont think the Bretons fought much differently from anyone else. At Hastings, they may have broken, but they co-operated with the Normans/French etc ok.
I think all Milites fought in a similar way across western europe at this time, but the Normans seem to have been better than most at it!

Thats my thought anyway..but I dont have specialist knowledge in this area.

Bohemund14 Aug 2011 6:44 a.m. PST

"Any thoughts on whether the Bretons fought in a different style?"

I don't know the primary evidence well, but their heritage as light cavalry is certainly more generally accepted. I'd also be interested to know if this is supportable with evidence.

Personal logo Unlucky General Supporting Member of TMP14 Aug 2011 1:37 p.m. PST

I think the distinction of unit types goes beyond this cavalry question. Homogenous units in general were more likely non-existent in the period to the level they are generally represented on the table-top. I play WAB and the comment is often made by game designers that the attributes of a unit should be represented by the 'majority' of models comprising that unit and I have taken the hint in recent years to mix my irregular formations accordingly. I'd suggest that wargamers tend to follow the packaging of figure manufacturers – we buy light cavalry in packs and tend to envision the unit similarly instead of spreading them across units. Could lightly or non-armoured cavalry have been formed for battle superior milites – yes, perhaps, maybe and sometimes. I like to project the 'what might I do' question to these circumstances becasue human nature and logic is relatively unalterable. In the absence of hard facts forums like these are really helpful to ascertain other perspectives as you have done. Go for it Cerdic.

Patrice14 Aug 2011 2:12 p.m. PST

I think that the lighter horsemen (= without chainmail or hauberk) often were the servants of noble horsemen, and/or were some poorer landowners who could afford a horse but not a hauberk. So my advice is to use them in the same groups as the heavier horsemen because they would not have been trained to any different tactics.

The Bretons had a great reputation of skirmish fighting with javelins and "feigned flight" tactics.

quidveritas14 Aug 2011 9:14 p.m. PST

The 'true' Normans in Sicily were few in numbers and apparently as close as you got to a professional soldier. They were not 'wealthy' for the most part. The reason they became mercenaries was because their prospects at home were not the best. However, I have little doubt (because of their incredible success ratio) that they were well equipped, each man in the style that best suited him.


Daffy Doug15 Aug 2011 9:33 a.m. PST

I'm not going downstairs to look this up; but, iirc, it is Ian Heath in his Dark Ages book (ah, ancient history by now) who points to references for a "light cavalry" tradition in Brittany. This partakes of javelins thrown from horseback, feigned flights, and in short, avoidance of direct frontal combat contact, similar to Steppes dicta; from which the Breton ancestors came via the Visigoths. This was, again iirc, supposition based on sources. But then so are most or all of our "facts" based on supposition to fill in the enormous blank areas. Without supposition we would not have a game to play.

When you combine the original sources for the battle of Hastings, you wind up with the Breton wing breaking in a real rout, or performing a feigned flight that went badly (the English right pursued them too hottly right down into the marshes the Bayeux Tapestry even has a scene indicating this); we also have the French depicted as more adept at the feigned flight business than the Normans.

And I have adopted this pov: that the Normans by 1066 were only barely capable of the same level of expertise on horseback as the "Franks", from whom they learned fighting on horseback. The generation before William the Conqueror was a transition in Normandy from infantry fighting to emphasis on mounted combat.

The Normans learned from their neighbors. One of the reasons for the Norman expansion being a success was their adaptability and use of existing local systems, military and government and religious.

Certainly, after the conquest of England, the Anglo-Normans fought on foot far more often than on horseback; or at least in combination, using dismounted and mounted troops.

In 1106 at Tinchebrai, king Henry used the Bretons mounted in concealment, while dismounting most of his Anglo-Norman knights and taking command on foot with them. They received the mounted charge of his brother Robert, and then the mounted Bretons (just like light cavalry would do) charged in from the rear and defeated duke Robert's mounted army….

Oh Bugger15 Aug 2011 11:00 a.m. PST

"This partakes of javelins thrown from horseback, feigned flights, and in short, avoidance of direct frontal combat contact, similar to Steppes dicta; from which the Breton ancestors came via the Visigoths."

The Breton ancestors came from what we now call Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. They were Britons, hence Bretons. Nary a Visigoth in sight.

miniMo15 Aug 2011 12:30 p.m. PST

Not the Visigoths, but the Alans. One linguistic theory is that Brittany was also the high-water mark of western migration for the Alans who mingled in with the resident Celts. Hence Alan as a personal name, and various place names of Alainville.

Patrice15 Aug 2011 1:45 p.m. PST

Er. Are we talking about light cavalry tactics, or about light cavalry miniatures ?

If the subject is about minis sold as "light cavalry" because they have no hauberk, I think they should be mixed in the same units as their noble masters better armoured.

If we are talking about tactics, yes, I entirely agree that the Bretons used typical light cavalry tactics (as they also did successfully in the 9th century against the Franks).

Daffy Doug15 Aug 2011 5:19 p.m. PST

Okay, Alans, instead of Visigoths. And from whence did the Alans come with their Steppesy tactics?

@O B: The influx of Britons in the 6th or 7th century (I forget exactly) gave the area its name, but the influx was only that, not a supplanting of the then-current population, which as noted was from the east. British tactical methods did not transplant, as there was no "light cavalry" tradition in the British Isles to speak of; but there was such in Brittany; or at least we all seem to recall reading that there was. Nobody so far has dragged out any original source evidence. So this thread is bantering hear-say….

Oh Bugger16 Aug 2011 2:43 a.m. PST

"Nobody so far has dragged out any original source evidence."

OK, consider what evidence we do have of British tactics in the 6th Century it comes from the eulogy for the Gododdin. We have cavalry who throw spears and use swords and shields. Some of them, at least, are armoured. They charge the front and flanks of their enemies no doubt throwing spears and getting stuck in if the odds look good. Does that resemble what we know of Breton tactics?

Then we have the Alans who, according to Arrian, use a lance and a fierce charge or who use a bow and harass from a distance before closing.

The Bretons did not use horse archers or fiercely charging lancers and I am at a loss to see steppe tactics at work in what information we have of them.

We have a well attested migration of Britons to Brittany and some evidence of Alans too. We have a style of warfare that fits its British precedents but not those of the steppe. Unless you think everyone who ever threw a spear from horseback used steppe tactics. After all we don't think of Numidians or Picts using steppe tactics.

Daffy Doug16 Aug 2011 10:03 a.m. PST

"Steppe tactics" in my definition means the avoidance of a frontal confrontation. Or in other words, a refusal to commit the main strength of your army to a frontal attack with the intent to overwhelm and thus defeat your enemy.

Combined with this dictum is the probing exploitation of the flanks, until they are found and passed by, thus exposing the rear of the enemy army.

To facilitate this standard approach, the army is usually formed into a crescent or "projecting horns" formation with the center refused.

Once the flanks are exposed, they are engaged to pin the enemy in place, and further forces, if available, will then seek out and attack the enemy rear. When all of this has been accomplished, then, and only then, will the center be more heavily engaged, to pin it in place as well: but at no point will a frontal assault be made with physical contact until the enemy army is seen to waver because of the destruction occurring on its flanks and rear.

All of this pressure, by the way, is applied with missiles wherever possible. It does not matter if the missiles are javelins or arrows; the principles are exactly the same; only the range differs.

Once the enemy is weakened as much as possible by the missile barrages on the flanks and rear, then and only then, the whole army engages the enemy from all sides. A feigned flight will be performed at the most efficacious time, and from the most visible front, so that the shaken, frightened enemy will break into a pursuit: many will be intent on fleeing through the "hole" provided by the feigned flight; some will be intent on catching and killing the foe, deeming that despite the ordeal that they have been undergoing, the enemy (our guys) are actually beaten. "It's a miraculous deliverance by God!" Knowing that this is the mindset of an all-but-beaten foe, the feigned flight is therefore the final psychological weapon to complete the utter disorder of the enemy army. By pursuing the feigned flight their array comes to pieces. The other units (probably on flanks and rear) now set up their own pursuit of the now moving enemy, closing in with missiles and now physically charging home with lance and sword. The enemy, already moving in pursuit, now hastens their momentum to get away, and their movement dissolves into an utter rout; to be picked off piecemeal until their destruction is complete.

Now, as far as I have read (little enough that there is, and long ago), this is the mindset of Bretons engaging in mounted combat. The Normans picked this up, as well as the Frankish propensity to charge home directly and frontally. In other words, the Breton way is used, but the Frankish way is preferred over time.

I believe it is in Orderic Vitalis, that he mentions that by c. 1125 knights were no longer throwing the lance. Couched lance charges were the only method that knights employed. Even the Bretons by then had abandoned their earlier "Steppe" light cavalry tactics….

Oh Bugger16 Aug 2011 12:08 p.m. PST

""Steppe tactics" in my definition means the avoidance of a frontal confrontation."

You should have said earlier I thought you meant what people from the steppes did.

Patrice16 Aug 2011 1:27 p.m. PST

The influx of Britons in the 6th or 7th century (I forget exactly) gave the area its name, but the influx was only that, not a supplanting of the then-current population, which as noted was from the east
There was some influx probably as early as the 3rd century, but most of it in the 5th and 6th century. The local population was Gauls (somewhat romanised) and the Briton immigration was large enough to bring the language that still has many basic words and some of its grammar close to Welsh.

there was no "light cavalry" tradition in the British Isles to speak of; but there was such in Brittany; or at least we all seem to recall reading that there was
There is lot of evidence that the Bretons used light cavalry tactics in Brittany in the 9th century against the Franks.

Daffy Doug17 Aug 2011 1:31 p.m. PST

There is lot of evidence that the Bretons used light cavalry tactics in Brittany in the 9th century against the Franks.

That would go along with what I think I know. And why do I think I know this? I can't remember where I read it. I've mentioned Ian Heath, but I'm sure I've read about Breton "light cavalry" elsewhere. Where is this "lot(s) of evidence" of which you speak? And I don't mean seminal discourse. Original source evidence is always gratifying….

Patrice18 Aug 2011 5:40 a.m. PST

Where is this "lot(s) of evidence" of which you speak? And I don't mean seminal discourse. Original source evidence is always gratifying…

Of course. Without original sources it is not history, only a random discussion in a pub.

Ermoldus Nigellus (Ermold the Black) a monk who went to Brittany with invading Frankish troops in 818 against a Breton chief called Murman (Morvan), and wrote about it a long poem in latin. I have the text with a french translation as I don't understand much latin (editions "Les Belles Lettres", Paris 1964). He mentions missile weapons for the Bretons, writes twice that the chief Murman uses javelins, and (verse n1680) that the Breton chief attacks the baggage of the Franks, hits the back and the breast of poor shepherds, charge here and there, and "according to the practice of his ancestors, runs away to come back again". At the end of the fight Murman meets a Frankish cavalryman, throws a javelin at him, misses, and the Frank kills him with a thrusting spear.

A note in the same book says that Regino of Prum chronicles mentions (year 889) that "the Bretons fight like the Hungarian cavalrymen, not charging home and going away after each blow, the difference with the Hungarians is that they use javelins and no arrows" (but I haven't seen this text).

Regino of Prum (again) description of the battle of Jengland 851 (sometimes said to describe another battle, Ballon 845, but it is about Jengland). Many books about the early history of Brittany have a French translation of this text. Regino writes that (sorry for a very quick and bad english translation:) "the Frankish king put Saxon mercenaries in the first line to face the quick attacks and surprise returns of the Breton cavalry; but when they received the first javelins the Saxons ran behind the army. The Bretons, according to their custom and mounting horses trained for this, go from one side to the other. Sometimes they do massive attacks and send volleys of javelins against the massed Frankish troops, sometimes they pretend to fly away but those who ride after them also receive javelins in their breast. The custom of the Franks is to fight close, spear against spear, so they do not move, they are afraid of this new and unknown danger. They cannot ride after these light troops, and if they stay in line and wait they cannot protect themselves."

Oh Bugger18 Aug 2011 6:49 a.m. PST

Interesting stuff Patrice.

Daffy Doug18 Aug 2011 9:02 a.m. PST

Patrice, I love TMP this morning because of you. Thanks for responding.

As far as I know, there is no evidence between your sources and Orderic Vitalis (as I said, c. 1125) to indicate any change in the Breton way of making war from horseback. I consider adopting their method as the reason why Normans later become well known for the feigned flight, and the ability to "switch-hit" as it were between various tactical ploys with their cavalry. Whereas the French/Franks are known, even at this early date (your source says) for being fixed in place in a close order line, "spear to spear", and do not have the capacity to respond to "light cavalry" acting in the "Hungarian" fashion, i.e. like "Turks" or cavalry originating from the Steppe.

Clearly, at Hastings, the French wing (the right) performed the feigned flight effectively. The Normans, on the other hand, seem to have difficulty in the center disengaging except by precipitate retreat (according to the Carmen). According to Wm of Poitiers, William the Conqueror brings Norman reserves in to cut up the English who pursue the French and Bretons on the wings. So by the 11th century, the French/Franks had learned a thing or two from the Bretons and adopted, at least sometimes, the capacity to perform the feigned flight. But by the 12th century, everyone seems to have dispensed with it for the most part; adopting the French propensity to charge "through the walls of Babyon" with couched lance, carrying all before them….

Daffy Doug18 Aug 2011 9:17 a.m. PST

So the intriguing question remains: where did the Bretons get this kind of "Turkish" approach to cavalry fighting? Did they bring it with them from Britannia? Or did they adopt an already existing cavalry tradition even as they gave the area of NW France its name by their emigration to there?

If they brought light cavalry with them, then is the later evidence for "skirmish" cavalry tactics in 11th century England a carry-over tradition? The description of Snorri Sturluson of Stamford Bridge reads exactly like Breton tactics; riding around a static shieldring and throwing arrows and javelins (or just "missiles and more missiles") at it, and making feints toward it as if intending to charge home. But just the instant the shieldring opens out and presents flanks and rear, in goes the English cavalry to exploit those vulnerable spots with a cavalry charge. (It could be taken this way. But I have always assumed that at that point, the English rode in close and quickly dismounted and went into the melee on foot; that is because I cannot accept English cavalry engaging in melee contact….)

Oh Bugger18 Aug 2011 9:22 a.m. PST

Interesting questions Doug. I think it is either the native cavalry style or even the influence of Roman tactics , or indeed both.

I think the evidence for English cavalry is poor at best.

Daffy Doug18 Aug 2011 9:31 a.m. PST

There is enough evidence for English cavalry to prove that it existed. What it was capable of doing is the arguable part. The pictorial evidence shows full cavalry equipment, including spurs. Yet earl Ralph's lamentable attempt to charge with his mounted troops is usually held as evidence that English "cavalry" could not charge home, i.e. there was no such thing as English cavalry, and earl Ralph was trying to force "continental" tactics upon his English thegns. Equally valid, however, is the assumption that disaffection was the cause of the cavalry charge failure, not incapacity….

Oh Bugger18 Aug 2011 10:15 a.m. PST

I don't doubt English warriors rode horses and even on occassion hit people while on horseback – but there is little evidence they fought as cavalry. We had a thread on it a while back where the evidence such as it is was scrutinised.

RockyRusso18 Aug 2011 10:21 a.m. PST


Roman cav in the "fall" period trained in these tactics. As the usual conceit is that the myths of Arthur reflects a held over Roman unit, then I would offer the reverse.

Open order "skirmish" cav is the norm, and the issue is that training to do a masses close order charge is the "innovation".

We are locked into thinking about big battles and armies, but for most of the "fall" period and the Dark ages in that part of Europe, the armies are small and more local skirmishes than "empires at war".


Patrice18 Aug 2011 11:16 a.m. PST

Er. I would suggest some broad ideas (only suggestions) for these tactics.

The Breton aristocracy were Sub-Roman British immigration. How did the so-called "arthurian" cavalry fight? Ian Heath made a drawing of a Sub-Roman British cavalryman holding a thrusting spear and two javelins. I suppose that they would charge with thrusting spears on open ground (as the Salisbury plains, etc), and use their javelins on broken ground?

The Late Roman Empire probably settled some Eastern European or asiatic cavalry garrisons in Brittany. They would have come with light cavalry tactics, even if bows.

Landscape. There are no Salisbury plains in Brittany, and especially not in Western Brittany. It is broken ground. We have no mountains, but if you ever came here for a cycling holidays you know that each small river or stream has its own deep and narrow valley, and in old times most higher grounds were forests and gorse-covered moors. Ermoldus Nigellus describes Brittany as a country of marshes; which is not true, but you have to cross valleys all the time and in the Dark Ages all these valleys were marshy and the battle of Ballon 845 was fought in the marshy plain of the Vilaine river where Frankish heavy troops were trapped.

SO my guess is: not enough room for big charges, not enough room even for bows. You need open space to shoot a bow on a galloping horse if you still want to control the horse. Let's use javelins!

But in the 12th century the Breton nobility became integrated in feudalism (whether French or Plantangenet), the old clan system disappeared, and fashions changed: "Hey Daddy, stop playing with your old javelins, we must be modern, all my friends have a couched lance now, please buy me one!".

It is only my opinion.

Daffy Doug19 Aug 2011 8:06 a.m. PST

@Rocky: That's probably true from the bigger picture pov. But once a culture does train for close order on horseback, and it becomes integrated, then succeeding generations facing open order tactics "for the first time" have a problem, until they respond properly to the fluid style by reintegrating the same tactics when necessary, e.g. the "Normans" resorting to feigned flights and withdrawing from combat readily enough.

@Patrice: I like your opinion. It allows a complex of causes for Breton tactics. Geography, Roman drill carrying on, emerging fashions sweeping all of France into a single mode of warfare. (And not the best one either, imho: it is intoxicating to ride knee to knee, many ponies deep, lance under arm, and crush everything in your path. But it is a "one-shot" weapon, and when it doesn't win, it loses, badly….)

RockyRusso19 Aug 2011 11:01 a.m. PST


As an aside, Parthian comp bows have been found under the great wall. AND, Phil Barker in his amateur archeology days did find the remains of martiobarbuli in similar middens.

The issue is more complex. It is arguable that most military evolves from local hunting. Hunting from horseback with javelins is pretty common in horse country. The Martiobarbuli is superior in range but a crappy hunting weapon because of accuracy issues. Bows from horseback really need to be short and to be effective as a short bow, be composite. The thing with composite is that it does not seem like much to someone who has not made bows, but if you have, this is a very sophisticated technology. Arguably, in era most users buy them from specialists. I have mentioned in other threads about italian city states importing such expertise when they were using comp bows and crossbows.

Anyway, I tend to "believe" less rather than more. "Romantically" we too often see the king's armor as "THE" armor, and I expect that just as we don't all drive Ferrari's that when dealing with troops, if you aren't sure, lighter is more likely than heavy.


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