The knights of Normandy were considered among the finest warriors of the medieval world. What did they wear and what equipment did they carry?
Norman knights wore a hauberk, a long mail shirt that reached their knees and forearms. They also wore pointed helmets with noseguards for protection while riding. They were among the best-equipped soldiers of the period and charged into battle wielding lances and shields.
For more on the Norman knights and what they wore into battle, read on.
Knights are the iconic warriors of the Middle Ages, heavily armored and riding into battle on horseback. Despite this, they were far from the norm during the period.
The vast majority of combatants in Medieval European armies were peasants, levied by their local lord and armed with basic weaponry such as spears. This changed in the 700s when Charles the Great, known as Charlemagne, became King of the Franks.
Charlemagne had a vast empire and struggled to maintain order using the traditional levy system. His solution was to begin using mounted soldiers, a rarity in western Europe at the time.
This cavalry became the core of his army and Charlemagne began awarding his best cavalrymen with land, or a “benefice”. In return for this gift of land from the king, a knight was expected to be ready to answer the call to battle whenever it came.
By doing this, Charlemagne had essentially created a new class of landed knights. They were noblemen but also professional soldiers, riding the best horses, wielding the best equipment, and receiving the best possible training.
It was highly effective and the idea quickly spread around the kingdoms of Europe. Even so, France was considered to have the finest knights in Europe for centuries.
In 1066, Duke William I of Normandy invaded England to press his claim on the English throne. The English army primarily consisted of heavily armored infantry and traditional peasant levies.
In contrast, the backbone of William’s army was its Norman knights. It is impossible to know exactly how many men were in William’s army, nor how many of each type of soldier was included.
Estimates generally place each army between about 5,000 and 7,000 men. In William’s case, there were between 2,000 and 3,000, cavalry, while the English force had no cavalry at all. Between 1,000 and 2,000 of William’s cavalry were knights, with all the benefits that the elite warriors brought to the battlefield.
Each Norman knight was well equipped, as all knights were. They carried a lance for use in charges, accompanied by a shield for protection. They also carried a sword, very useful if they found themselves in a position where they could not charge.
Knights were well armored, wearing a hauberk, a long mail shirt that reached the knees and the forearms. They also wore helmets, with nose guards to protect their faces during charges.
Their saddles had stirrups, to ensure the knights were held securely while riding into battle. They rode strong warhorses, specially bred to carry armored men, known as “destriers”.
Battle of Hastings
Many of William’s knights at Hastings were experienced soldiers and most of them had fought alongside each other numerous times. They were capable of advanced tactics, such as pretending to flee the battle to tempt the English to break ranks before returning to cut them down on the open field.
The lance was an ideal counter to the English shield wall, an otherwise stalwart defense. By riding toward the English and using their lances, the Norman cavalry hoped to create a gap in the shield wall, allowing them to penetrate the enemy line.
They were ultimately successful in this tactic and King Harold Godwinson of England was slain, irrevocably damaging the English morale. The Normans were soon victorious, and Duke William became King William the Conqueror.
Norman knights had been a decisive factor at Hastings and the battle served as their introduction into England. William instituted the system that had worked so well in his homeland and knights became a part of England, as they had in France.
Advancements in technology and tactics ultimately reduced the effectiveness of knights and they eventually became a thing of the past. Even so, they were once an essential component of Medieval European armies and played an important part in writing the history of the continent.