“For I rode the moon-mare’s horses in the glory of my youth,
“Wrestled with the hills at sunset – till I met brass-tinctured Truth.
“Till I saw the temples topple, till I saw the idols reel,
“Till my brain had turned to iron, and my heart had turned to steel.”
Robert E. Howard, “Always Comes Evening”
We’ve now arrived at the historical period REH seemed to love best. He admitted it himself, in the letter to Harold Preece quoted last post. “Oh, a brave time, by Satan! Any smooth rogue could swindle his way through life, as he can today, but then there was pageantry and high illusion and vanity, and the beloved tinsel of glory without which life is not worth living.”
Some of his best stories are set during the three centuries this post will leapfrog through. Earliest of those is “The Road of Azrael”. That story takes place shortly after the First Crusade. The narrator, Kosru Malik, a Chagatai Turk, owes his life to a Crusader, Eric de Cogan, who saved him during the slaughter at Jerusalem. They were both youths at the time.
There is much hard riding, beginning in the first scene, when Kosru Malik escapes the sultan’s camp on a “tall bay” he has taken from a sentry after slaying an old enemy. He meets Eric de Cogan on “a long limbed roan that reeled from fatigue”. De Cogan is seeking his beloved, in the hands of Muhammad Khan. There are bands of Seljuk Turks, Persians, and Arabs. When he encounters the latter, Kosru sees “five hundred splendid Arab steeds … My very mouth watered. By Allah, these Bedoui be dogs and sons of dogs, but they breed good horse flesh!”
Dogs or not, they did. A matter referred to last post. The day, and the lovers, are saved at the end by the deus ex machina appearance – in a Viking longship, in the Persian Gulf – of King Harald Godwinson. It appears he wasn’t really killed at Hastings, but smuggled away while the Normans were shown someone else’s corpse. He’s described by Kosru Malik as “greatly aged”, which he’d have to be by then, but it doesn’t stop him from fighting to good effect.
Harald’s appearance provides a link, in the story, between Hastings and the dawn of the twelfth century which is interesting for the purposes of this post. William the Bastard’s knights at Hastings rode fairly small, slender steeds, compared with the English war-horses of later times. The seals of William the Conqueror, his brother Odo, and his son William II, all depict horses like that – and they are not armored. With time and careful breeding, they grew larger. That process went on throughout the twelfth century and the thirteenth. The Normans took pride in their horses, and worked at breeding better ones. In their early days as lords of England they seem to have let foals and their dams run wild until the breeding season, when they would gather them into herds. Domesday Book has many references to “forest” or “untamed” mares.
Another thing that changed considerably from its rough early days was the tournament. Its main purpose was training for war, and in the eleventh century the word “lists” described, not an enclosed field with a safety barrier down the middle where splendid knights in surcoats and crests could joust, but an area of country that might cover a few hundred acres, where two groups of mounted knights fought what amounted to war games, with almost the only rule being that any limbs hacked off had to be handed back when the brawl finished. I’m only half joking.
During the tournament, if he was hurt or had strategic reason, a knight could retire outside the lists. There, he couldn’t be touched. He could return to the fray when he felt ready. If he was defeated or taken prisoner, then just as in real warfare, he had to ransom himself or forfeit his horse and armor. Knights were very often maimed or killed in these affairs. The Church condemned tournaments for that reason, and because they encouraged sinful, violent pride, but the ban never had any effect, not even with excommunication as a deterrent. Richard the Lionheart, despite his romantic image, was a practical monarch in some ways. He couldn’t stop tournaments, so he licensed them instead. And charged a fee.
REH set other fine stories in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — “The Lion of Tiberias” (1144), “Gates of Empire” (the 1160s) his Cormac Fitzgeoffrey yarns, “Hawks of Outremer” and “The Blood of Belshazzar” in the aftermath of the Third Crusade (1190s), and “Red Blades of Black Cathay” in the early thirteenth century, the time of the Fifth Crusade and Genghis Khan. Later in the thirteenth century, “The Sowers of the Thunder” touches on the early career of Baibars al-Bunduqari, before he became Sultan of Egypt, and describes the hellish sack of Jerusalem by the Khawarezmians, driven west by the Mongols, in 1243.
Howard never makes a point of it – it would have held up the pace of the stories anyhow – but there was quite a difference due to breeding in the horses his heroes rode over that time span. To oversimplify, in early medieval times the most urgent need of knights in western Christendom was for breeding large numbers of horses suitable for mounted warfare. Throughout the thirteenth century, as a knight’s armor came to weigh more and his horse itself began to be burdened by armor, it became more important to breed bigger, stronger steeds. This was achieved over the century and a half from 1100 to 1250.
The famous medieval “great horse” or destrier came into its own in this era. There’s much dispute as to how big it actually was. Best estimate available – it was definitely NOT the size of a huge modern cart-horse or plow-horse like the Percheron or Clydesdale, seventeen hands or so with massive bones. Fifteen hands average is likely. Rather bigger than the horses the Normans rode at Hastings, but not gigantic. Experts like Anne Hyland (whose knowledge is not just theoretical) concur.
There were other kinds of mount, naturally – the gentle palfrey for everyday riding, the rouncey for common men-at-arms on campaign, and the rough hobby for the light foot soldiers. The hobbies didn’t take part in cavalry actions as a rule; they carried the men to the battle, where they fought dismounted.
King John (Richard the Lionheart’s rotten brother, familiar from the Robin Hood movies) had a chief keeper of the royal horses named Thomas de Landa. De Landa was often in the records as transporting royal war-horses from place to place, probably to stud farms which were also royal estates. Horses were imported from Spain to improve the English breed, and all through the thirteenth century were the most prized and important. Later they were imported from Lombardy too.
Baibars (featured in “Sowers of the Thunder”), the Sultan of Egypt who began as a Mamluk slave-soldier, was a noted horseman. He built two splendid hippodromes in Cairo for riding exercises, and practiced rigorously twice a week himself, to set others an example. And when Mamluks said “rigorous”, friends, they meant rigorous. Baibars increased the cavalry during his reign from about 10,000 horsemen to – it was said – 40,000.
REH didn’t write much with a fourteenth-century background, and nothing I know of set in the Hundred Years War, except a poem about a savage Norman-Irish mercenary and the Black Prince, “The Skull in the Clouds.” The mercenary could easily be a descendant of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, whose emblem was a skull, and whose parentage was Norman-Irish, though he isn’t given a name. The poem begins with the line, “The Black Prince scowled above his lance, and wrath in his hot eyes lay …”
The prince suspects the mercenary of trying to assassinate him – as he has, paid by a FitzGerald lord in Ireland to commit the murder. The prince would have been King Edward IV if he had ever worn England’s crown. Besides the other significant things which happened in the reigns of the first three Edwards, separate accounts began to be kept for the royal horse studs, and while they haven’t been fully examined yet, they do show that expenditure in this area had marked peaks and slumps. One of the peaks (in Edward I’s reign) was in the years 1292-1301, no doubt to make good a shortage of war-horses for his Welsh and Scottish wars.
An ordinance of his (1282) ruled that anybody with more than thirty pounds’ worth of land must help “meet the scarcity of the great horses suitable for war”. That term “great horse,” or magnus equus, is used for the first time officially there. It was a technical term with a specific meaning. Not coincidentally, at this time mail was going out and plate armor was coming in, partial at first, on the arms, shoulders and legs. The combination of hauberk and plate was actually heavier than the finely-made suits of full plate which came later, and war-horses too were burdened with armor. The chamfron, a metal mask to protect the charger’s face, and chest and neck armor, were most important in a charge, but crude unsporting foot soldiers would attack the beast from behind if they could, so horse armor (barding) to protect the hind quarters was necessary too.
The clergy and barons, of one mind for once, objected to Edward I’s huge expenditure on the studs and pressured him to economize at last.
While Edward II was hardly a mighty soldier like his father, he did have a Scottish war on his hands and in any case he was an enthusiast for horse-breeding, so he revived the studs with vigor and extravagance. Even before he came to the throne he made a point of borrowing a fine stallion from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and commissioned an Italian merchant to buy horses and mares in Lombardy. Two years after he became king, he sent agents to Lombardy to buy twenty destriers and twelve mares – the mares meant specifically for breeding, of course.
His son Edward III started the Hundred Years’ War by claiming the throne of France. One of the techniques the English used against the French crown was the chevauchee — derived from the French for horse, cheval. It was essentially a destructive cavalry expedition to destroy crops, towns and other resources, so depriving the enemy of the means to wage war. The Black Prince led two major chevauchees in two successive years. The raid of 1355 was the most destructive the English ever carried out. Prince Edward started from Bordeaux with 5,000 men, pillaged and burned his way across Armagnac and Languedoc, and seriously threatened Toulouse before he turned back. Very likely the Norman-Irish mercenary of “The Skull in the Clouds” would have been with him then, and again in 1356, when a second big chevauchee took place, this time with 7,000 men.
REH’s story “Lord of Samarcand,” besides being damned good, closes out the period that concerns us here in a fitting way. It spans half the world from Scotland to Central Asia and it finishes just after 1400. Donald MacDeesa, a grim vengeful highlander, is the main character. He was at Otterburn (1388) and then fled to the continent. After that, according to Howard, he was in the thick of “seven years of fighting and intriguing in European wars and plots” before he went with the Christian forces that opposed the Sultan Bayazid at Nicopolis in September 1396.
Bayazid was the sultan of the Ottoman Turks. He swiftly became an even greater threat to Europe than his predecessor, Murad the Conqueror. Always in the saddle, always leading his armies, he rode fast and far even by the standards of the Central Asian nomads, moving so swiftly and striking so hard that he was given the nickname “Thunderbolt.” In 1393 his forces captured Nicopolis, “the strongest Bulgarian fortress on the Danube,” in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman. He also captured, imprisoned and then had strangled the Czar of the Bulgars, Ivan. Bayazid was now a direct threat to Hungary, which was obviously his next intended target – that or Constantinople. King Sigismund of Hungary appealed to the west for assistance. The Pope proclaimed a crusade. (Popes had been proclaiming crusades against the Turks for about forty years without much result, but this time there was a response.)
About 2000 knights came from France, with 6,000 foot soldiers and archers from the well-known “Free Companions” of the Hundred Years’ War. Donald MacDeesa would have been among them. There were 1500 Serbian knights on the Ottoman side, the Serbs now being Ottoman vassals. A cavalry charge by the Serbs at a crucial moment in the battle proved decisive; it crushed the Hungarian forces. But well before that, lack of planning and preparation among the Crusaders had augured badly. They had not even brought siege engines. The knights among them had insisted on opening with a cavalry charge – for their own glory. Their charge slaughtered the Turkish archers and broke their light cavalry, but it also left the Hungarian pikemen behind, unable to give support, and then, in REH’s words, “the real battle lay before them; and their horses were weary, their lances broken, their throats choked with dust and thirst.”
The result was debacle and defeat. Few Christians survived the battle, and fewer still reached home again. The disaster showed yet again that it’s best to use your knights, spearmen and archers in a judicious mix, having them support and defend each other as required. William the Bastard had done just that at Hastings, and won, – but he wasn’t at Nicopolis.
“Who but you cried down the Elector in council … Who called Sigismund of Hungary a fool because he urged that the lord allow him to lead the assault with his infantry? And who but you had the ear of that young fool High Constable of France, Philip of Artois, so that in the end he led the charge that ruined us all, nor would wait on the ridge for support from the Hungarians? And now you, who turned tail quicker than any when you saw what your folly had done, you bid me fetch you a horse!”
Robert E. Howard, “Lord of Samarcand”
The French were still refusing to learn that lesson when they faced Henry V at Agincourt.