THE MILITARY USELESSNESS OF MOUNTED KNIGHTS
By: R.K. Fisher
Edited by: Martini Fisher
Mounted knights were always powerless against well-trained infantry, but military thinking took nearly eight hundred years to catch up with realities. The introduction of firearms finally proved that the only really useful thing about the knights was their horses. By the second quarter of the sixteenth century armored soldiers fighting from horseback were obsolete. Thereafter the role of knights was restricted to being officers commanding foot or cavalry regiments.
The greater stability of the rider in the saddle allowed for the effective use of lances in mounted charges – the whole weight of the horse and rider could be put behind the lance – but this was a development of the early Middle Ages (after 1000CE), and useful only in specific circumstances. The great bulk of a medieval army consisted of infantry. The cavalry were a minority, and in the later centuries most of them were not knights – they were just ordinary infantry troops on horseback – and they usually dismounted to fight anyway.
The problem is that horses are too intelligent to charge into an unyielding block of trained infantry who stand solid behind a wall of shields, with pointy spears and sharp swords poking out of it – only chivalrous nobles and Frenchmen would do that. For the same reason as no horse will run straight into a brick wall, no horse will smash into a phalanx – they always stop. The only way to deal with a solid phalanx of infantry was by opposing it with infantry, preferably archers as well. Armored horsemen were effective against mobs of unruly citizens or poorly trained infantry (as most medieval troops were), or in rounding up infantry whose ranks had been broken by combined attacks of archers, infantry and horse, but unsupported cavalry never had much success against disciplined foot soldiers.
During the Hundred Years War between England and France, which began with the battle at Crécy in 1346, the English had several advantages – one was that the English knights got down off their horses; the second was that the commoners of England and Wales supported their king and hence could be trusted to use their weapons against the enemy instead of against their superiors; and the third was that the Welsh developed the longbow, a weapon equal in power to the earlier crossbow and much more rapid firing. At Crécy the English army, consisting of archers and dismounted infantry, repelled fifteen French cavalry charges and inflicted heavy losses.Towards the end of the war, at Agincourt, the English army of 6000 men (including 5000 archers, all of them commoners) defeated a French army of 25,000, including thousands of armored knights fighting on foot.
So mounted knights were never particularly useful in war – they were effective only in charging against undisciplined mobs, either of commoners or routed infantry. The whole feudal system was based on the existence of the knights, and the knights were from the ruling families of their various countries – they monopolized the religious and political power structures. Changed social and economic conditions after the Black Death plague in the fourteenth century, and changes in military technology, put much more power into the hands of the commoners – at least everywhere except France, where the church and the nobles kept a tight hold on the reins of power. The reality – that the mounted armored nobleman was totally outclassed by a commoner with a bow – was too socially subversive to be countenanced, so it is not too surprising that the myth of chivalry began there, as an attempt to preserve the image of the knights as the guardians of social stability.