When and why did professional infantry replace noble knights as the dominant force on medieval battlefields? How dominant were cavalry in this period?


Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
“So long as infantry held their nerve , a well-formed sqaure was almost invulnerable”
page 132

Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon
By Rory Muir

“Still it remains generally true that horses will not run nose first into things.”
page 10

“As was the case throughout the rest of the horse’s military history , “shock” combat should be thought of mainly psychological trauma of being ridden at by a mass of heavy animals, rather than the physical impact of colliding bodies or weapons”
page 12

“It is generally true that cavalry could not or would not , charge a well ordered hoplite phalanx frontally”
page 43

Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare
By Phil Sidnell

“The key point is that against a solid infantry formation , cavalry charge was a psychological weapon, not a physical one. It’s success had to depend on frightening at least some of the foot soldiers into breaking ranks or fleeing. Otherwise , cavalry horses would balk in the face of a obstacle they could neither jump over or go round - the solid wall of foot-soldiers. Individual horses and riders might accidentally crash into an unfortunate foot soldier in rank, but on the whole the charge would be brought up short of mass collusion”
page 50 - Stephan Morillo
The Circle of War in the Middle Ages: Essays on Medieval Military and Naval ...
edited by Donald J. Kagay, L. J. Andrew Villalo

“At no time in the history of warfare is there clear evidence that cavalry were able, in frontal attack, to charge and defeat a well-trained body of infantry that preserved it’s formation”
page 57

“A satisfactory argument against cavalry, is provided by P.A. Race, who points out the “ the inability of ordinary Greek cavalry to charge through the Phalanx had nothing do with any deficiency in equipment and tactics. “The problem lay with the horse. A horseman can charge into a mob, but only if those in his path give way before him. If those in the crowd link arms and stand their gourd will shy” , and goes on to say that “the effect of shock cavalry is psychological and not physical”
page 156

“Traditionally, the charge has been view as the principal function of cavalry on the battlefield. yet painted scenes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and movies in the twentieth offer images of cavalry charges that often have little in common with reality and not helpful to out efforts to understand what was meant by charge in the battles fought by Alexander. In battles the tactical goal was to engage the enemy had to hand combat with the cavalry of the line at at critical spot in their formation. Once physical contact was made, Alexander relied on the superiority of forces to break into and then rout the enemy at the point of contact. Except rarely and incidentally, the charge itself was not sufficient to accomplish this. Rather , enemy resistance was broken by the restless pressure of hand to hand combat, for which the Macedonian cavalry were much better prepared than their counterparts”

page 179
Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World
By Robert E. Gaebel

“Mirabeau write that “veteran and intelligent cavalry officers have told us that when two bodies of cavalry charge one another , it almost always happen that one party flees before the other can meet it. Sword blows are only dealt during the pursuit”
— page 108 “The Army of Frederick the Great” (Christopher Duffy)

“Indeed it has been pretended by Experienced officers , who had themselves frequently directed charges, that a complete line infantry without spaces or intervals is impregnable , even thought never fires a shot.”
- Lieutenant Colonel William Thomkson, british Cavalry officer present at waterloo
quoted page 239 “Battle Tactics of Napoleon and his enemies” (Brent Nosworthy)
Nov 2010
Just took a look to the seminal work of Huici Miranda that studied the three different Berber invasions of the Iberian Peninsula and the most relevant battles that the invasions produced: “Las Grandes Batallas de La Reconquista Durante Las Invasiones Africanas”/“The Great Battles of the Reconquista during the African Invasions”.

The battles are Zalaca (Almoravid victory), Úcles (Almoravid victory), Alarcos (Almohad victory), Las Navas de Tolosa (Christian victory) and Salado (Christian victory). Even if in the meantime Huici Miranda analyses not only the battles but also makes some contextualization.

Re-reading and recalling some parts of the book, the first thing that brought my attention that could be interesting to this thread was:

All the battlefields are in a vast plain, with the exception of Las Navas de Tolosa, where the Christians were on the top of a hill (p.11).

Again, in Huici Miranda, we see the critics that Oman made to the knighs: “Los Castellanos, en general, no tenian mas concepto de la batalla que el de un choque frontal, en el que su valor y la eficacia de su caballeria enloriagada ler permitia forzar y deshacer las líneas enemigas.” / “The Castilians, in general, had no more concept of the battle than that of a frontal clash, in which their value and the effectiveness of their armoured cavalry allowed them to force and crash the enemy lines.” (p.12) Even if a bit latter he praises the Cid. A bit on the line of John’s previous comments.

A side note, two ideas that I posted previously apparently came form a non-Academic work, interesting but not always reliable: “Armies of Feudal Europe – 1066 to 1300”, by Ian Heath (well known author from his Osprey books), notably that there was possible the presence of camelry in Zalaca and the number of the Almohad forces in 1184 (pp. 23-24). Curious things that my mind retains!!!
Yeah I'm not deadly sure about those camels at Zalaqa. Poor things would be a bit chilly in October :)

Oman s totally right of course. I've said the same many times myself without even reading that work on that (cant get it, have tried), it's obvious. In successive defeats like Zalaqa/Sagrajas, Almodovar, Consuegra, Ucles and also at Alarcos, the castillians did not have the wit to try anything other than a frontal assault or change the choice of battlefield. El Cid - who never actually fought for Castilla beyond his youth - was brilliant because he had a brain as well as strong professional forces. Whether fighting Aragon, Lerida, Barcleona or the Almoravids

Of the battles you mention my brief take is:

Zalaqa - fairly small numbers involved (rough 4-5000 Castilio-Leonese, up to 10,000 Almoravids and Andalusians?????). Shocking under-estimation and tactics from Alfonso VI (Against one of history's greatest generals)

Consuegra - been there. Never in a million years were the castillians ever going to win on that plain. Stupid

Ucles - been there, the battlefield is well defined and celebrated (unusual for Spain). The guide book contains Huici Miranda's fantastic analysis. I believe that the numbers were very small - around 2500 for Alvar Fanez's Castillian relief force if I recall correctly. The Almoravid forces were always larger, but were garrison troops from Granada etc. Tactically and strategically catastrophic, and the infante killed to boot in the treachery at Belinchon. If the Almoravids had any follow up plan or ability - or hadn't inexplicably withdrawn (probably simple supply issues), the whole North was opened up

Alarcos - Almohads at the peak of their power. under Yacub Al Mansur Alfonso VIII took battle too early without the arrival of some allies, rushing to the enemy in a position of their choice - another thing they always did. Again, too open battlefield, heavy cavalry tied up/tired out, light cavalry and archers win the day. Alfonso refugees into castle just as at Consuegra with Alfonso VI. Almohads ravish the north for 2 summers

Las Navas - took place because the truce after Alarcos had finally expired and Alonso was resolved to act. Got 'crusaders' from all over europe, most of whom went off in a sulk before the battle. The Almohads were under Al Nasr - a less brilliant, uninspring and cruel Caliph without his father's abilities in battle or leadership. Despite meticulous supply planning the climate and landscape of Spain meant that both armies staggered towards each other in increasingly dire need of both food and water. (Numbers, Almohads 28-30,000, Christians 10-14000). Not sure the Christians were on the top of a hill as such Tulius. They managed to get themselves stuck fast during the night on Mesa del Rey, an area just big enough without any water at all and no apparent way off Then - however it happened (miraculous goatherds etc)- someone appeared and guided them off at the point of death to the valley below where there was water and the Almohad army was drawn up opposite. By chance this battlefiled therefore was closed, without any of the plains charaterristics useful to the Almohads. The rest is history and it was a battle of attrition

Rio Salado - in my view the largest muslim army assembled in Iberia, probably over 40,000 between Almohads and Granadinos. Mind-boggling incompetence from the Caliph meant victory for Alfonso XI when, if the Merinids had stayed fortified around Tarifa for another day, the Castillio-Portuguese would have run out of food and water

I've said it before - the apparent brilliance of people like El Cid and Yusuf Ibn Tashufin was partly because of the mediocrity and incompetence of many others who had leadership thrust upon them, in the medieval era
Likes: Yuyue
Nov 2010
It came back to me overnight (how sad) that at Ucles the Castillians (under Alvar Fanez and Garcia Ordonez) fell for the old feint retreat trick as well as the usual failings. faced with a small charge of Almoravid light cavalry, they 'drove it back' and then charged headlong after it.

Nov 2010
this one never get old ,
creating an apparent weakness and making them pay for it
Sits well though with the period. Knights 'must charge toward the enemy or they are cowards', sort of thing. As well as Ucles the battle of Moclin springs to mind, with the destruction of the Knights of Santiago.

But more famously Hattin of course, where this attitude, allegedly displayed by the Grand Masters of the Temple and the Hospital, lost the Holy Land. What daft times they were


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
the most extreme case was sir Thomas Gray at the battle of Bannock burn
advising the king that things were looking somewhat pear-shaped ,
the king told him to be gone if he was afraid
blanching under the insult he replied "it is not from fear that I shall fly this day."
and alone charged the ranks of the Scots , impaling his horse on the pikes and slashing single handed at the whole enemy army then falling among them
this had a disastrous effect on the English knights ,
the king was held in low esteem while the knight had brilliantly upheld the honor of his house
Nov 2010
the most extreme case was sir Thomas Gray at the battle of Bannock burn
advising the king that things were looking somewhat pear-shaped ,
the king told him to be gone if he was afraid
blanching under the insult he replied "it is not from fear that I shall fly this day."
and alone charged the ranks of the Scots , impaling his horse on the pikes and slashing single handed at the whole enemy army then falling among them
this had a disastrous effect on the English knights ,
the king was held in low esteem while the knight had brilliantly upheld the honor of his house
He had, probably rightly so. But then he wasn't responsible for losing everybody else with him like the examples above.

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