If Wishes Were Horses — Part 4c: Renaissance (1401 – 1600)

So I gave the horse the rein and rode at a reckless gallop over bushy expanses and through scattered woodlands, expecting each moment to hear the drum of hoofs behind me.

Robert E. Howard, “Blades for France”

The last post in this series ended with a mention of Agincourt. Since that battle was fought in 1415, it pretty much opens the period under discussion here, just as Nicopolis pretty much ended the previous one. And – relevantly to Robert E. Howard and Conan – the final big battle scene in Hour of the Dragon seems to owe more than a little to REH’s reading on Agincourt.

In HotD, and also in “The Scarlet Citadel”, King Conan is captured by his enemies and carried to their stronghold helpless in a chariot. I’m indebted to Deuce Richardson for drawing my attention to the lines in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” which REH certainly read and which struck a chord with him. A sure bet.

Go, down upon him, — you have power enough, —
And in a captive chariot into Roan (Rouen)
Bring him our prisoner.

Henry V, Act III, Scene V

Agincourt occurred during the Hundred Years’ War, with Henry V yet again pressing the English kings’ claim to the throne of France, begun by Edward III. Henry’s forces had taken Harfleur and were making for Calais, but due to heavy rain he had to travel further than he’d expected to ford the Somme, which is how he found himself near the village of Agincourt. (A sorcerous attempt to make a river impassable to Conan’s army through massive rains occurs in HotD.) Henry’s army was exhausted, and dysentery was rushing through it like a cattle stampede. Then a vengeful French host under the Constable, Charles d’Albret, caught the English in the pas-de-Calais with the intention of slaughtering them. It outnumbered the English by at least three to one (estimates vary; Shakespeare in Henry V says seven to one).

Luckily the English had a good commander in Henry, and thousands of the famous English longbowmen. They had the advantage of ground, too. Henry had drawn his soldiers for their stand on a rise with thickly wooded ground on either side, so that they couldn’t be outflanked, and covered his front with trenches and stakes. If the French were going to attack, they had to attack across a narrow front, into a hail of the notorious cloth-yard shafts.

They did just that. To compound their folly, they opened the fight with cavalry charges by their aristocratic knights. Why? Because the knights, as always, wanted to be first in the fray, seeking personal honor and glory. Besides the disadvantages mentioned above, the knights were charging uphill, through a sodden quagmire at least knee-deep.

Even they realized after a couple of attempts that charges on horseback were hopeless. Most unwillingly, they dismounted and attacked on foot. The results were just as bad. They struggled through that sticky knee-deep morass in full plate armor, with the English driving longbow shafts through their breastplates as they came. (English arrows would pierce plate as easily as crossbow bolts would, and could be loosed a lot faster.) Numbers of French knights who fell drowned inside their own helmets.

(REH gave Cormac Fitzgeoffrey the line in “Hawks of Outremer” — “I am no French she-knight to fear wading in the muck. Anyway, I fight better on foot.”)

The results were just what you’d expect. It was one of the most one-sided victories ever, and for a long time English accounts of the fight (not least Shakespeare’s) made it appear a miracle on England’s behalf. As Isaac Asimov once pointed out in his article, “The Unsecret Weapon,” it would really have been a miracle if the English had lost.

Don’t suppose for a second that I’m denigrating the English soldiers’ courage and hardihood here. They were exhausted, sick, facing a foe athirst for their hearts’ reddest blood, and the common soldiers at least knew there’d be no mercy if they lost. I’ve read recently that they stood with their trousers in their rucksacks and their own shit running down their legs into the cold mud, so that they’d have clean daks to wear afterwards, at least – if they survived. The dysentery, remember? And yet they fought and won. That they had priceless help from knightly French idiocy doesn’t lessen their feat.

The comparison with Agincourt at the climax of HotD is striking.

The pride of the Gundermen was no less fierce than that of the knights. They were not spear-fodder, to be sacrificed for the glory of better men. They were the finest infantry in the world, with a tradition that made their morale unshakable. The kings of Aquilonia had long learned the worth of unbreakable infantry. They held their formation unshaken; over their gleaming ranks flowed the great lion banner, and at the tip of the wedge a giant figure in black armor roared and smote like a hurricane, with a dripping ax that split steel and bone alike.

The Nemedians fought as gallantly as their traditions of high courage demanded. But they could not break the iron wedge, and from the wooded knolls on either hand arrows raked their close-packed ranks mercilessly. Their own bowmen were useless, their pikemen unable to climb the heights and come to grips with the Bossonians. Slowly, stubbornly, sullenly, the grim knights fell back, counting their empty saddles. Above them the Gundermen made no outcry of triumph. They closed their ranks, locking up the gaps made by the fallen. Sweat ran into their eyes from under their steel caps. They gripped their spears and waited, their fierce hearts swelling with pride that a king should fight on foot with them.

Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon

Despite winning at Agincourt so decisively, though, and then bringing France to terms and marrying the French princess, Henry V didn’t achieve anything lasting. He died of camp fever seven years after Agincourt, leaving a baby to succeed him. Technically he may have been a Renaissance king, but he was hardly a Renaissance man. The Renaissance is one of those terms that covers a lot of territory. Essentially it meant a general advance in the arts, sciences and literature that was inspired by a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman culture. The Italian Renaissance might be said to have started around 1300 with the painter Giotto and the poet Dante Alighieri. It stalled in Italy then for a few decades before really taking off. After that it moved to France, and reached England in roughly 1500. Henry V was long dead by then.

Even if he’d lived, neither he nor anybody else could have made the French accept English rule over the long haul. Joan of Arc was actually a more characteristic Renaissance figure than Henry V. She had the sort of nationalistic fervor that emerged in the Renaissance, as distinct from the medieval ideal of Christendom united under the Pope’s authority, and as Shaw stressed in his play “Saint Joan,” she was even a Protestant at heart. She didn’t accept the authority of bishops and cardinals when she saw clearly that they were wrong. Such lack of subordination, especially in a girl, was in the view of the time quite legitimately classed as heresy. That was the charge on which the Church tried her. The blather about witchcraft came from the English.

Joan had understood the political impact to be made by splendor on horseback, as well as any prince or count. When she confronted the Dauphin with her offer to save France, almost her first request was bright armor, a sword and — a horse. The Maid on her white charger leading the French armies in the name of God was a symbol that rallied the land. To achieve any good she had to command respect, which she knew she’d never do dashing around afoot.

As stated above, the Renaissance didn’t bring its attitudes and culture to England until about 1500. Henry VIII of that nation saw himself as the quintessential Renaissance prince, and acted the role to the hilt, but except when young he scarcely had the figure for it. He came to the English throne at eighteen, and was certainly an athlete then. An enthusiastic hunter, it was said of him that: “He never takes that diversion without tiring out eight or ten horses.”

His Gallic rival and counterpart, King Francis I, was also passionate about hunting, which required being a good horseman. The French court moved around, eating the country bare as it went, and while that entourage of nobles and ladies wasn’t as governed by rigid etiquette as it became later, there were some social skills highly valued. Hunting counted as an important one. It called for entire stables of fine horses. A (Scottish) character in Dorothy Dunnett’s Queen’s Play describes it pungently.

Nothing in this lunatic country matters as much as the hunt. Fifteen thousand people, this man’s father (the king’s) went about with … signing state papers on horseback, and heralds running after him yearning in couples. They never stayed above fifteen days in one place, unless they were at war, and every ambassador in Europe hated hunting for life.

Thus fine hunting horses were greatly prized, by the king and every ambitious courtier. Hunting was a symbol of knighthood, the mark of a true gentleman – or lady. Henry VIII declared when young that hunting was the best way to avoid “idlenes the ground of all vyce and to exercise that thing that shal be honorable and to the bodye healthfull and profitable.” That’s ironic in view of his record in later life. He bred horses for racing, too, but they were not thoroughbreds as the term is used today. Those were bred in the 18th century from the descendants of just three great studs. However, Henry VIII did use stock from eastern countries.

For hunting and ceremonial the well-bred palfrey was de rigeur. Many were needed. Three companies of Scots Archers, each company one hundred strong, all mounted, accompanied the French court. In addition there were two companies of gentilshommes de l’hotel, again mounted. The only court troops that didn’t ride were the Swiss halberdiers.

When Henry and Francis met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), they were both conscious of the need for suitable mounts. Henry’s agents searched Europe for them. From the first Duke of Mantua, he obtained a fine Friesland bay. The Emperor Charles V obliged Henry with twenty-five beautiful Spanish horses. The English king rode a horse from Naples for the actual event, while Francis, who had just as assiduously sought a splendid mount, bestrode one from Mantua. All Renaissance princes craved horses on which they could look glorious.

In England King Henry’s Gentleman Pensioners belonged to the royal household and had to provide horses for ceremonial and military occasions. The king granted many of them parks in which to keep studs. Sir Nicholas Arnold (who died in 1580) was among them. He imported horses from Flanders and kept a fine stud of war-horses from Naples. Doctrines of Italian horsemanship were influential in England. Henry VIII employed several Italians as officers in his stables – Alessandro de Bologna, Giacomo de Granado, Matteo of Mantua and a farrier named Annibale. Others were to follow under Queen Elizabeth.

To quote R.H.C. Davis in The Medieval Warhorse, “The most famous of these Italians was Federico Grisone, gentleman of Naples, whom his contemporaries hailed as a new Xenophon.” I’ve referred above to the respect Xenophon’s tract on horsemanship commanded in the Renaissance. Grisone published his book The Rules of Horsemanship at Naples in 1550. He maintained that the three essentials of a good horseman were “First, to knowe how and when to helpe your Horse. Secondlie, how and when to correct him. And thirdlie, how and when to cherish him, and to make much of him.”

The old-fashioned lords of his day didn’t agree with Grisone’s principles. They believed in heavy horses and massive armor. They didn’t see that it was out of date. The advances in firearms had made it so, even then. Breastplates and helmets were still useful, but the day of full plate had vanished. Warriors who saw this, knew a warhorse must now be nimble and obedient rather than powerful, trained to perform intricate maneuvers in the face of cannon and musket fire. The question was still being hotly argued in 1650, even though it wasn’t really a question any longer. Pistol and musket fire had settled it long ago.

A mark of the time was the inspiration it drew from classical cultures. The courts of Europe revived that classic treatise on horsemanship, the Hippike of Xenophon (430 – 354 BCE). Veterinary medicine advanced greatly in Renaissance Italy also, though unless we’re equitation professionals we tend to forget that. At least I do. Tournaments had become splendid spectacles for royal show, rather than practical training in war. They had developed into the kind of tournament we know from Hollywood movies. A wooden safety barrier divided the lists, contestants wore magnificent surcoats, and the caparisons of their horses would have fed and clothed a peasant village for a year. Chivalry was for the rich and famous. It always had been.

REH’s de Montour story, “Wolfshead,” is clearly set in the Renaissance. It has a Portuguese castle being built on the slave coast of Africa, and the narrator, long after the events of “Wolfshead,” assures his listeners that they don’t know what real terror is. “You are soldiers, adventurers. You have known the charges of regiments of dragoons … ”

Dragoons were essentially mounted infantry, and they did first appear in France during the Renaissance. New types of firearms produced the need for them and made them effective. However, they were still in the future even at the time of REH’s “Sword Woman,” Dark Agnes de la Fere. She enjoyed her time of glory during the 1520s and – this blogger suspects – didn’t survive much beyond them. She had little or nothing to do with the royal court, though she and her rascal of a comrade Etienne did once encounter King Francis’s mistress, Francoise de Foix.

Dark Agnes must have had a gift for horsemanship, since her rearing in a squalid peasant village makes it doubtful that she’d ever seen a passable mount before she left. By the time “Blades for France” begins, she’s able to kill a big swaggering bravo in fair fight, then take his “great horse … with rich housings of red leather and gilt braid,” and ride it confidently through the dusk, “very grateful for the easing of my weary feet.” When she meets her comrade in adventure, Etienne, he’s also riding an excellent horse, which he’d obtained in his usual manner, no doubt … by stealing it. Both his mount and Agnes’s, presumably, were fine blooded palfreys.

But the troops called “dragoons” made their first appearance in France in the 1550s – that is, a full generation after Dark Agnes’s time. A new type of firearm made them effective, and gave such soldiers their name. A carbine or short musket, easily carried on horseback, was called a “dragon” or “dragoon.” Its bearers fought as light cavalrymen on the attack. When required to defend, they dismounted and fought as infantry.

Wheel-lock horse pistols which could blast even through a breastplate brought new horse maneuvers. The caracole was introduced in the mid-fifteenth century, and employed by dragoon troops. They would advance on the enemy at a walk or canter, then increase their speed as they came within range. After shooting at the foe, they wheeled aside and fell back to reload, while the next rank repeated their action.

That other famous character of REH’s, Solomon Kane, lived during the Renaissance also. He circumnavigated the world with Francis Drake in the 1570s and fought in the revenge with Richard Grenville in 1591. However, he appears to have been a seaman, not a horseman. His adventures in Europe and England show him travelling on foot, almost always, and in the depths of Africa he has to wander that way; neither jungle nor savannah was kind to horses. So Kane doesn’t come into the purview of this post.

The early Cossacks do, most certainly. They appeared and became a distinct society during the years this post considers. But they deserve one entirely to themselves, and they’ll get it, in the next article in this series.

They shake the world from the lands of snow To the deserts, red in the sunset’s fire; Their horses swim in a sea of gore, And the tribes of the earth bow down before …

 Robert E. Howard, The Riders of Babylon

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part 4a, Part 4b, Part 5a, Part 5b, Part 6