Knights to Cavalry Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although the roles of knights and cavalrymen are often confused, the two are actually different.


Although the roles of knights and cavalrymen are often confused, the two are actually different. Knights were mounted warriors who fought as an aggregate of individuals; cavalry were tactical bodies of horsemen who fought as a cohesive unit. Knights, who dominated the battlefields of central and western Europe from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, were identified by their horses, armor, and weapons. Although it was not a violation of the knightly code for knights to fight on foot, knights generally fought on horseback, wearing armor, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat using couched lances, broadswords, and other shock weapons, such as maces. Knights’ proper opponents were other knights, not the ill-disciplined and badly armed infantrymen who accompanied medieval armies.Cavalry;medievalKnightsCavalry;medievalKnights

The usual knightly tactic was the frontal charge, with the horsemen forming up in a line and riding toward the enemy’s line, reaching a full gallop some 30 to 40 yards before colliding with the enemy. Unless one foe was badly inferior in number or morale, allowing the line to be broken, hand-to-hand Hand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat];knightscombat ensued in the melee after the two lines collided, where individual combatants were nearly identical in equipment, strength, and training. The knights spent little time drilling together. Imbued with the old Germanic tradition that the best warrior led the others into battle, the knights competed to be the first into battle, making it difficult for commanders to coordinate simple tactical moves such as flanking maneuvers before the knights rode off to charge the enemy.

For all of their deficiencies, knights proved their mettle against Byzantine and Muslim forces, and for nearly 250 years after the Battle of Hastings, Battle of (1066)Hastings (1066) they were all but invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. At the Battles of Courtrai Courtrai, Battle of (1302)(1302) in the Franco-Dutch War and the Morgarten Morgarten, Battle of (1315)(1315) in the First Austro-Swiss War, however, Flemish and Swiss pikemen demonstrated that the proper choice of terrain allowed resolute foot soldiers to defeat French and Austrian knights respectively. By then the use of powerful Crossbowscrossbows and Longbowslongbows also put knights at greater risk of death on the battlefield at the hands of commoner bowmen. The combination of archer and dismounted knight used by the English throughout the Hundred Years’ WarHundred Years’ War (1337-1453)(1337-1453) proved deadly effective against French knights. Men-at-arms responded to their new vulnerability by using plate armor for themselves and their horses, which were more likely than their riders to be killed in battle. Plate Armor;platearmor presented several problems. It was too expensive for the less wealthy nobles, so that the near equality in knightly equipment that had marked the previous era disappeared. Its weight required larger and more costly Horses and horse riding;armorwarhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the men-at-arms to do little more than a straight-ahead charge. Despite defeat by the Swiss infantrymen in numerous battles throughout the fifteenth century, culminating at Nancy Nancy, Battle of (1477)(1477) in the death of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the duke of Normandy, armored horsemen remained a potent element, especially in the French army.

Impact of Gunpowder Weapons

The development of gunpowder weapons after 1325 did little to change warfare for 150 years. Their first niche was in siege Siege warfare;gunpowder weaponswarfare. During the Hussite Wars Hussite Wars (1419-1434)(1419-1434) in Bohemia, Hussite leader Jan Žižka, JanŽižka, Jan[Zizka, Jan]Žižka (c. 1360-1424) successfully brought the siege to the battlefield using the Wagenburg (linked wagons)Wagenburg, which copied a fort by placing firearms and small cannon on wagons drawn up in a defensive line. Žižka’s Wagenburg stymied the German knights who were his enemy in the war, but the tactic did not spread beyond Bohemia. The new weaponry, including both firearms and artillery, was too inaccurate, slow to reload, and clumsy to use on the battlefield to be effective against men-at-arms, although its ability to pierce plate armor increased knightly casualty rates.

Medieval knights face a massed infantry pike formation, against which, in their heavy armor and their large, unwieldy horses, they became less and less effective.

(Library of Congress)

During the Italian Wars of Italian Wars of 1494-15591494-1559, which began in 1494 when French king Charles Charles VIIICharles VIII (king of France)[Charles 08]VIII (r. 1483-1498) led an army of 8,500 horsemen across the Alps, the men-at-arms continued to have a significant place in battle. At Seminara Seminara, Battle of (1495)(1495) the French men-at-arms crushed the Spanish and Italian horsemen and then routed the enemy infantry by attacking its flank and rear. Faced with the need to reform his army after its crushing defeat, Ferdinand II of Ferdinand II of AragonFerdinand II of Aragon[Ferdinand 02]Aragon (1452-1516) decided to concentrate on the infantry, introducing the combination of firearms and pike that became known as the Spanish Spanish Square (infantry formation)Square. This formation demonstrated its potential against the French men-at-arms at Cerignola Cerignola, Battle of (1503)(1503), when well-entrenched infantrymen using harquebuses and pikes held off their charge and killed the French commander with a harquebus ball as he rode toward their line. The men-at-arms had their victorious moments, most notably at Marignano Marignano, Battle of (1515)(1515), where they had a major role in the French victory over the Swiss. The last battle in which French men-at-arms using their traditional fighting style had a significant role in gaining victory was Cerisolles Cerisolles, Battle of (1544)(1544) in northern Italy. Their foe, a Spanish and German force serving Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), placed too much faith in the ability of Harquebusiersharquebusiers to withstand a cavalry charge without support from pikemen. The harquebusiers could not sustain fire strong enough to halt the men-at-arms as they charged through the balls into their ranks.

French king Henry II is wounded in a joust the year of the treaty between France and Spain that ended decades of war between the two countries.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

France was the last place in Europe where knights continued to be used as a major part of the army. This tradition reflected the attitude of the French nobles, who regarded fighting on horseback as their God-given right. The Spanish had never developed much of a force of armored horsemen because their principal foe through the Middle Ages had been the light cavalry of the Moors and because Spanish agriculture was incapable of breeding many of the heavy horses the knights required. The English had been using armored men as heavy infantry since conquering Wales in the thirteenth century. English ability to deploy armored men on horseback was severely limited by the lack of heavy horses. The Italians had used men-at-arms as their principal fighting force until 1494, but one consequence of the Italian Wars of 1494-1559 was a rapid decline in that system. A city such as Venice would keep some armored horsemen under arms until late in the sixteenth century, but this practice was more for the appeasement of its noble class than for any practical value the knights had on the battlefield.

The Pistol

The Pistolsfinal challenge to the traditional man-at-arms appeared in Germany. German knights had continued to appear in war until 1540. Then, within a decade, the pistoler replaced the knight. The wheel-lock Wheel-lock mechanism[Wheel lock mechanism]mechanism for the pistol was developed about 1505 in either Germany or Italy, but it evolved into the pistol first in Germany. By 1518, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian Maximilian IMaximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)[Maximilian 01]I (1459-1519) had banned weapons small enough to be concealed in one’s sleeve. The production of the wheel lock was a time-consuming task that required much smaller tolerances than the matchlock used in the harquebus did. Because the wheel lock had to be sturdy enough for use in a weapon, it was very expensive. Cost probably was the principal reason the pistol did not become a weapon for foot soldiers, although some wheel-lock muskets were made.

The nobles, who still insisted on their right to fight on horseback, found that the pistol could be effective from horseback, especially if they carried three or four of them, which could be loaded in advance, placed in slings or in their boots, and fired in rapid succession. The wheel-lock pistol was badly inaccurate at any distance beyond a few paces and only more so when fired from a moving horse. However, a horseman firing three or four pistols rapidly could have some hope of hitting a foe. The pistol was a one-handed weapon, which allowed the rider a free hand to control his horse. Although there had been mounted harquebusiers in most European armies since 1500, the sparking match of the harquebusiers’ two-handed weapons frightened their horses, and the harquebusiers usually dismounted to fire. Pistols offered many benefits: Pistolers could shed much of their armor, making their mobility the key to what success they had; their horses could be smaller and cheaper; and it required less training to use a pistol than a lance.

Mounted pistolers first appeared in the war between Charles V and the Lutheran princes in Germany (1546-1555). When they served in Charles’s army that fought the French for control of Lorraine (1553-1554), the French called them Reîtres (pistolers)[Reitres]reîtres. The French men-at-arms were astonished when a force of reîtres little larger than their own band defeated them at Saint-Vincent in Lorraine (1553). The forces of Spanish king Philip Philip IIPhilip II (king of Spain)[Philip 02 king of Spain] II (r. 1556-1598) had great numbers of reîtres at the Battle of Saint Saint Quentin, Battle of (1557) Quentin (1557). Their speed played a major role in the deadly pursuit of the routed French forces. French king Henry Henry IIHenry II (king of France)[Henry 02] II (r. 1547-1559) then recruited eight thousand reîtres for the French army. In the French Wars of Religion that followed Henry’s accidental death while jousting (a further blow to the traditional style), the Protestants Protestant army had the larger number of reîtres, because most were Lutherans.

The Caracole

In Caracolesthe Battle of Dreux, Battle of (1562)Dreux (1562), between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholics, the Protestant pistolers for the first time executed the tactic known as the caracole. The reîtres rode toward their enemy’s line in successive ranks, fired their pistols a few yards from the foe as they wheeled their horses about, and returned to the rear of their formation to reload and wait their turn to repeat the maneuver. The caracole had success against an infantry force armed only with shock weapons, but it was ineffective against a well-equipped force of harquebusiers, who had greater range. The caracole was more successful against the men-at-arms because reîtres could rely on greater speed to keep clear of their shock weapons. In 1568 Marshal Gaspard de Tavannes, Gaspard deTavannes, Gaspard deTavannes (1509-1573), the royalist Catholic commander, ordered that each company of horsemen would ride together in the formation it would take on the battlefield, so that men would become accustomed to holding their positions, a clear statement of the change from the knight to the cavalryman. The pistolers formed up in depth, while the knights charged in a line one or two ranks deep. To be effective in their deep formation, reîtres required more organization, drill, and training than did knights. Cohesion in their units was more crucial to what success they had on the battlefield. François de La La Noue, François deLa Noue, François de[LaNoue]Noue (1531-1591), a Protestant captain, noted with distaste in his Discours politiques et militaires (1587; The Politicke and Militarie Discourses, 1588) that pistolers could defeat noble men-at-arms if they kept tight order and discipline.

The values–and limitations–of the caracole maneuver were demonstrated in the Battle of Dreux in 1562.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

By the time Henry Henry IVHenry IV (king of France)[Henry 04]IV (r. 1589-1610) became the French king, the pistol had largely replaced the lance in France. Henry regarded shock tactics as necessary, and he had his horsemen charge into the ranks of the enemy with swords after they had fired their pistols. The greater discipline in Henry’s cavalry units made them effective in hand-to-hand combat. During the Dutch Wars of Independence Dutch Wars of Independence (1566-1648)(1566-1648), Maurice ofMaurice of NassauMaurice of NassauNassau (1567-1625) ordered his horsemen to abandon the lance entirely. When Gustavus II Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]Adolphus of Sweden (1594-1632) went to war with Poland (1617-1629), he found that his pistolers lacked the discipline and training to counter the powerful Polish lancers, who still fought largely in the traditional style. The scarcity of firearms in eastern Europe meant that horsemen there had not increased the weight of their armor and thus were still mobile and effective. Although he allowed his horsemen to fire a pistol as they closed on the enemy, Gustavus reemphasized shock tactics using the sword. However, he also demanded that his horsemen drill extensively so that they would fight as a cohesive unit. In battles of the Thirty Years’ Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);cavalryWar such as Breitenfeld I Breitenfeld, Battle of (1631)(1631), he demonstrated the success of his ideas and completed the transition from knight to cavalry.Cavalry;medievalKnights

Books and Articles
  • Baumgartner, Frederic. “The Final Demise of the Medieval Knight in France.” In Regnum, Religio, et Ratio, edited by Jerome Friedman. St. Louis, Mo.: Sixteenth Century, 1988.
  • Delbrück, Hans. The History of the Art of War. Translated by Walter Renfroe. 4 vols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
  • Ellis, John. Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare. New York: Putnam, 1978. Reprint. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword, 2004.
  • Eltis, David. The Military Revolution in the Sixteenth Century. London: I. B. Tauris, 1995.
  • France, John. “Men of War: Cavalry.” In Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300. London: UCL Press, 1999.
  • Gillmor, Carroll. “Cavalry, Ancient and Medieval.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Gravett, Christopher. Real Knights: Over Twenty True Stories of Battle and Adventure. Illustrated by John James. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2005.
  • _______. Tudor Knight. Illustrated by Graham Turner. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.
  • Hall, Bert. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Hyland, Ann. The Warhorse, 1250-1600. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998.
  • Morillo, Stephen. “The ‘Age of Cavalry’ Revisited.” In The Circle of War in the Middle Ages: Essays on Medieval Military and Naval History, edited by Donald J. Kagay and L. J. Andrew Villalon. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Man and Horse: Four Thousand Years of the Mounted Warrior. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2008.
  • Urban, William L. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. London: Greenhill, 2003.
Films and Other Media
  • Knights and Armor. Documentary. History Channel, 2004.
  • Tales of the Gun: Early Guns. Documentary. History Channel, 1998.
  • The Works: Guns and Ammo. Documentary. History Channel, 2008.

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