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Medieval knights charging into battle

Debunking the biggest myths about medieval warfare


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Never mind the Hollywood epics and fanciful Arthurian legends – what was warfare in the medieval era really like? From the truth about knights to the real deal about castle defences, we’re about to clear up some misconceptions about a much-mythologised time. 

Knights were chivalrous 

The word ‘knight’ conjures up rose-tinted images of gallant champions abiding by codes of chivalry and justice. But this notion owes more to medieval romances and Victorian yarns than the ugly reality. First emerging as a class of mounted warriors in the 8th century, knights were – in the words of medieval historian Jennifer Goodman Wollock – essentially ‘hired thugs’, often in the employ of landowners and rival nobles. 

The feudal violence got so bad that the Catholic Church even launched a campaign in the late 10th century known as the Peace of God, which forbade anyone from attacking peasants, clergymen and other non-combatants. And, even when codes of chivalry began to emerge in the later medieval period, the fearsome reputation of knights persisted.  

The influential 13th century Book of the Order of Chivalry by Ramon Llull, while laying out ground rules for ‘noble’ behaviour, still emphasises that ‘the duty of a Knight is to support his land, for the whole reason why the common people labour and plough the ground is that they fear the Knights and are terrified lest they should be destroyed.’ 

European castles were always made from stone 

You’ll probably imagine a grey stone structure, but other kinds of castles were also seen during the era. For one thing, early medieval castles were made of wood, making them terribly vulnerable to fire – even the Bayeux Tapestry depicts intrepid attackers setting such structures ablaze. What’s more, such wooden fortifications persisted well into the late medieval era. Sycharth Castle, the home of the last native-born Prince of Wales Owain Glyndwr, was a timber structure that was in use until the 15th century. 

There were also castles made of bricks, such as Malbork Castle in Poland. Constructed by the Teutonic Knights at the turn of the 14th century, it’s still the largest brick building on the planet. Meanwhile, the Castle of Paderne, erected in Portugal in the 12th century, was fashioned from ‘rammed earth’ – a compacted combination of chalk, limestone and soil.

Swords were all-important weapons 

Medieval sword fights have featured a lot in films and TV shows over the decades, for the simple reason that it’s exciting to see warriors go at it in protracted one-on-one combat. But in reality, swords were secondary weapons, to be drawn only when absolutely necessary.  

Most of the time, medieval knights and infantrymen relied on their primary weapons, which were typically polearms like pikes and lances, or projectile weapons like crossbows. That said, swords stood apart from other weapons because they often signified high status, and many became associated with iconic monarchs and military leaders of the era.

The cavalry was only active on the battlefield 

It may be natural to assume that horseback cavalry charges were a battlefield phenomenon only. After all, why would knights and other men-at-arms go galloping around in civilian areas? The answer: to carry out devastating ‘chevauchée’ raids, in order to destroy enemy territory, wreck their supply chains and generally spread morale-wrecking panic.  

This tactic was widely used during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, with the English in particular carrying out sudden, fast cavalry raids through hapless villages to terrorise civilians and steal livestock. Edward the Black Prince mounted one of the biggest chevauchée campaigns in 1355, with thousands of English riders cutting a swathe through French territory, looting and setting fire to communities as they went.

Knights had to be lifted onto their horses with cranes 

One of the greatest films about the medieval period, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, also helped cement an amusing myth about that era’s warfare. Namely, knights were clad in so much cumbersome armour that they had to be lifted onto horses with crane-like devices. Olivier chose to depict the scene for dramatic purposes, much to the bafflement of the academic he’d brought in to advise him on accuracy. 

In fact, knights were clad in far more forgiving armour – after all, being unable to move about with ease would have rendered them sitting ducks on the battlefield. The idea that medieval combatants were hoisted this way seems to have originated in satirical 19th century writings. For example, in the Comic History of England, American humourist Edgar Wilson Nye quips that ‘no man could ever climb a horse in full armour without a feudal derrick [lifting device] to assist him’.

Hot oil was poured down murder holes 

Despite their suspiciously melodramatic name, murder holes were a very real feature of many castles in the medieval period. These were gaps in the ceilings of passageways, which would allow the occupants to sneakily attack any enemy soldiers trying to gain access. Murder holes are associated with boiling oil in the popular consciousness, but the truth is that other substances were far more likely to be used

Oil was frankly too valuable a commodity to be literally thrown away, particularly if you were trapped in a besieged castle. Instead, defenders preferred to chuck boiling water, quicklime, hot sand and rocks down onto any marauders unlucky enough to be directly below them.