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A guide to medieval warfare and tactics
Whether seeking to expand their empires and spheres of influence or subjugate those of a different faith, numerous states and dynasties were immersed in the blood and thunder of war during the medieval era. But what kinds of battlefield strategies and tactics were used by their armies?
Devastating cavalry charges
The cavalry charge – in which soldiers on horseback gallop straight towards the enemy – is a potent military strategy that’s synonymous with the Middle Ages. While these kinds of attacks had long been employed in warfare across the world, developments in saddles and stirrups, and the emerging technique of couching the lance under the arm (thus utilising the momentum of the galloping horse to drive the tip of the lance into the enemy) made the cavalry charge a core tactic of the medieval era.
The Templar Knights were particularly famed and feared for their cavalry charges. It earned them the reputation of being the shock troops of the Crusades, with the knights launching formidable cavalry charges in confrontations like the Battle of Montgisard, which was fought between Saladin’s forces and the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1177. As an eyewitness account put it, the Templar charge ‘incessantly knocked down, scattered, struck and crushed’ Saladin’s foot soldiers, so much so that the great Ayyubid leader himself was ‘smitten with admiration’.
However, soldiers on foot – the infantry – developed weapons that could take on the knights and men-at-arms on horseback. This would become particularly obvious during the Hundred Years’ War which spanned the 14th and 15th centuries.
Lethal infantry tactics
As warfare evolved in the Middle Ages, infantry troops were able to take on cavalries in several ways. They would often create physical obstacles for the charging horses – for example, at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the Scots dug pits in front of their position to entrap or break up cavalry troops coming their way. At the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, Ottoman troops set up sharped stakes that would gash the stomachs of the Crusaders’ horses.
Archery was also used to deadly effect against cavalries and enemy infantry during the Middle Ages. The English, for example, became known for their use of the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War. Think of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, when the French troops found themselves rained on by thousands upon thousands of arrows. The English also stuck sharpened stakes in the soil to keep the French cavalry at bay.
The pike, a long pole with a lethally pointed end, was another invaluable weapon for medieval infantry troops. During the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries, Scottish forces were known for their use of schiltrons: tight groups of soldiers pointing their pikes outwards at different angles. At the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, William Wallace arranged some of his troops into circular schiltrons, with archers carefully positioned between these giant hedgehogs of pike-wielding men. The tactic did significant damage to the English cavalry, even though Wallace eventually lost the battle.
Arduous siege warfare
The proliferation of castles in the medieval era meant that siege warfare – long, physically gruelling, psychologically exhausting – was a fact of life for warriors of the time. Attackers would often blockade, camp, and otherwise maintain a presence around the target fortress for weeks, months and even years on end. Sieges would also often take place around whole cities – a notable example being the 53-day standoff at Constantinople in 1453, which culminated in the fall of the city and of the Byzantine Empire itself.
A degree of diplomacy would often be required, at least during the early phase of a siege. The attackers would generally be keen to negotiate the surrender of the people inside the target, to avoid a drawn-out and costly deadlock. If an agreement wasn’t reached, the attackers would hope to seal off the target to starve the occupants into submission. Or, they could use siege engines to bring a violent end to proceedings. A prominent type was the trebuchet, a huge catapult that threw heavy projectiles using a long arm.
When Edward I’s English forces laid siege to Stirling Castle in 1304, they assembled a fearsome array of siege engines, including what’s thought to be the largest trebuchet ever made. Dubbed the Warwolf, it was frankly terrifying to behold, leading the Scots to send out some men to negotiate a surrender. Edward was so confident in his strategy that he curtly replied, ‘You do not deserve any grace, but must surrender to my will’. The Warwolf was then used to tear a hole in the castle’s curtain wall, absolutely assuring Edward’s victory.
As well as trying to attack the target directly, besieging forces might also choose to tunnel underneath the fortifications in an attempt to weaken them, and cause them to collapse. This was known as mining, and an infamous example of this tactic came during King John’s siege of Rochester Castle during a period of civil war in 1215.
Having mined beneath part of the castle, the king’s forces called for the delivery of ‘40 of the fattest pigs, the sort least good for eating’. The fat from these pigs was then used to burn the support beams of the attackers’ tunnels. This caused them to collapse, bringing down part of the castle with them.