Lordship and Feudalism

From the horseman to the knight

William the Conqueror's horsemen (milites), wielding the lance like a missile weapon. Tapisserie de BayeuxIron-clad horsemen sweeping away the defences of the enemy in irresistible charges, and striking with sword and lance in the heart of the battle. This is the image transmitted to us by the literature of the 11th and 12th centuries in which the English and Italian chroniclers drew a picture of Norman warriors displaying the quality of their arms and horsemanship, and their valour in combat.Horsemen charging with their lances lowered. "Life, Passion & Miracles of  St Edmund, king and martyr"Bury-St. Edmunds,  c. 1130,  Pierpont Morgan Library, NY, ms 736, ff 7 v.

The Bayeux Tapestry supports this image of the Norman warrior as, above all, a horseman, mastering a new technique of combat. The lance was still used like a javelin, thrown from a distance, but the tapestry clearly shows charges by compact groups of men with the lance set at the horizontal to pierce the ranks of the enemy. This innovation required the mobilisation of combatants who were sufficiently wealthy to sustain the cost of equipping a horse and its rider, and who had the leisure time required to train in both the handling of arms and in the techniques of combat in a body of troops.

Recumbent statue of Sir William of Friardel, early 13th c., church of St Augustine's Priory, Saint-Cyr-du-Friardel (Calvados).These developments were not unique to Normandy, but the warrior reputation of the Normans probably stems from the fact that from the reign of William the Conqueror onwards, the Duke retained specialists in warfare under his authority, thereby availing himself of a large and efficient army. The basic unit of the Norman feudal system was the military fiefdom, the revenues of which enabled the maintenance of a mounted combatant, and in particular the purchase of a coat of chain mail (the hauberk). These fiefdoms were grouped into baronies with the chief holder taking his authority directly from the Duke to whom he personally gave homage.

The knight (on the right), the rook and pawn, chess pieces made out of walrus ivory. The game of chess was highly valued among the knightly class.In addition to the troops attached to the person of the Duke and to certain great lords, there were knights who lived on their land, in their castles, from where they were called upon to serve for periods of 40 days when the Duke called his army together. For the rest of the time the knight was part of the framework of peasant society, which he ruled for his own benefit, but he respected the ‘Duke's Peace’ when the latter exerted his powers to their full extent.Goliath depicted as a Norman warrior, initial B, "Commentary of St Augustine on the Psalms", St-Evroult Abbey, 11th-12th c.

At the beginning of the 11th century the knights formed a new stratum of society, the limits of which were ill-defined, but they may be distinguished both from the aristocracy based on the ducal family and from the senior barons. The knights were sometimes not native to Normandy, having been summoned by the Duke to his service, especially at the time of the conquest of England. They were not exclusively entitled to bear arms: for example at the battle of Tinchebray (1106) the armies were mainly foot soldiers, and mercenaries were already employed during the reign of William, which was always the case under Henry II..

It was therefore only at the end of a fairly slow evolution, between the 11th century and the end of the 12th, that the knights emerged as a distinct class, identifiable by their way of life and supported by the rites and ideology of chivalry.

previous page  The Anglo-Norman Territories  next page