Re‐thinking the origins of the ‘Irish’ hobelar

Re‐thinking the origins of the ‘Irish’ hobelar

By Robert Jones

Cardiff Historical Papers, Vol.1 (2008)

Introduction: The hobelar is something of a sideshow in medieval military history. In the past century there have been only two major studies of this troop type: J.E. Morris’ ‘Mounted Infantry Warfare’ in 1914 and J. Lydon’s ‘The Hobelar: An Irish Contribution to Medieval Warfare’ in 1954. This is perhaps surprising given that Morris saw the hobelar as the precursor to the mounted longbowman, while Lydon called him ‘the most effective fighting man of the age’, referring to the hobelar as ‘an entirely different type of mounted soldier’. Other historians have only considered the hobelar in passing, and have been happy to accept the conclusions of Morris and Lydon. If he is so important to the development of warfare in the High Middle Ages, why has not more work been done on him? This paper looks again at the conclusions of Morris and Lydon, and seeks to re‐evaluate the hobelar’s origins and legacy.

The origins of the hobelar, say Morris and Lydon, lie in Ireland. Their evidence seems conclusive. The term is first seen in documents relating to the contingent brought by John de Wogan, Justiciar of Ireland, to serve in Edward I’s Scottish cam‐ paign of 1296, and over the next decade Edward’s forces included an increasing number of hobelars in the Irish contingents. The derivation of the term ‘hobelar’ stems from the hobby or hobin, the small horse that these troops habitually rode, this name in turn coming from the Gaelic word obann meaning ‘swift’. According to Morris and Lydon, the hobelar was unlike any cavalry present in England at the time, being mounted on a small pony, without the caparison of the ‘heavy’ cavalryman and equipped with only a mail shirt, a helmet, a sword, and a spear. He was therefore unsuited for ‘shock action’, the ‘only duty of cavalry’. However, he was an excellent scout and raider, perfect for the style of warfare common in Ireland and most effective in the Scottish campaigns of the fourteenth century. The hobelar was to have a short lifespan. His numbers grew rapidly after 1296, 490 serving in the contingent from Ireland for the 1304 campaign, and 1,000 being requested (but not arriving) for that of 1332. By the 1350s his numbers had dwindled, as he was superseded by the mounted longbowman who, combining the hobelar’s mobility with the archer’s firepower, became an essential part of English armies for the next two hundred years. These then are Morris and Lydon’s conclusions. The hobelar comes from Ireland, is a new type of warrior in English warfare, and helps spawn, only to be replaced by, the mounted longbow.

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