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The Myth of the “Invincibility” of the Norman Cavalry Charge in the Eleventh Century: a Comparative Analysis of the Battles of Hastings (1066) and Dyrrachium (1081)

The Myth of the “Invincibility” of the Norman Cavalry Charge in the Eleventh Century: a Comparative Analysis of the Battles of Hastings (1066) and Dyrrachium (1081)

By George Theotokis, University of Notre Dame

Given at the 2011 Haskins Society Conference at Boston College

Did the Normans simply implement the same battle tactics they successfully used in Northwest Europe when they went to Italy? Theotokis tries to answer this question by looking at the Norman victories at Hastings in 1066 and Dyrrachium (also known as Durazzo) in 1081.

He finds several similarities between both battles, one of which was the formation used by the Normans – a three by three formation, where the Norman cavalry was kept at the center and non-Norman units on the flanks. At Hastings and Dyrrachium this Norman cavalry center made a charge early on in the battle, but in both cases these attacks failed to dislodge the Anglo-Saxon housecarls or the Byzantine’s Varangian Guard. Theotokis notes that “heavy cavalry units could make no impression upon well-equipped and disciplined foot soldiers who kept their formation unbroken.”

The reason for the Norman victories at both Hastings and Dyrrachium was the fact that their enemies made a major mistake, namely making an attack on the Norman forces. At Hastings, the belief that Duke William was killed led the Anglo-Saxon warriors to make an attack from their hill position, while at Dyrrachium the Byzantines made attack on Robert Guiscard’s center after routing his right flank. In both cases, these undisciplined infantry attacks on the Norman cavalry forces failed completely, and ultimately turned the tide of the battle.

Theotokis adds that in between the battles of Hastings and Dyrrachium the Normans did not exhibit any innovations; in fact were using the same tactics found in Frankish warfare for hundreds of years. He does credit the Norman commanders with the fact they were the ones who seized the strategic initiative in choosing the battlefield.

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