Stirrup-less charges? Shocking!

Stirrup-less charges? Shocking! Part 2

This is for the follow up article, only available now on the wayback machine.
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“Saddle, Lance and Stirrup”
The Irish/Roman Connection

When my article “Saddle, Lance and Stirrup”, was first published (Originally published in Hammerterz Forum Vol 4 No 3&4 July 15, 1998), I pointed out that “form follows function” was my rationale behind saying that the advent of the couched lance position did not FOLLOW the use of the stirrup – but rather the other way around; that the use of the couched lance preceded the use of the stirrup. My main thrust was to point out that the saddle was more instrumental in aiding the seat in a couched charge, than the stirrups.

But lest anyone take my article to imply that I say that stirrups are USELESS in a charge – I say again, most emphatically, that the stirrups DO aid in the charge. They aid in most anything one wants to accomplish on horseback, from archery to combat to roping cattle, or playing polo. I would rather ride, rope, fight and play polo WITH stirrups, than without; but that doesn’t mean any of those actions cannot be undertaken without them.

My argument is that they were not necessary for the couched position to become possible or effective. It seems to me that warriors in ancient times would wield their lance or spear or javelin in whatever manner was most expedient for the moment; sometimes overhand, sometimes underhand. Sometimes throwing, and sometimes couching the weapon.

Apparently this has caused some controversy in the ranks of academia. One would almost assume that my practical testing of this concept was somehow without precedent. I have seen my article cited by both sides of the argument that “with/without” stirrups the charge was not possible and hence the stirrups did/did not contribute directly to the rise of the armored knight.

Of course, one need only point to the reconstructions of the ancient Roman Saddle, which utilized a kind of four “horns” that aided the rider in maintaining his seat in combat.

Reproductions of Roman era saddles used by Re-enactors.
Based on Peter Connoly’s reconstruction.

The Romans had a very effective cavalry, using it for pursuit, combat and recognizance. In addition to their spears and oval shields, they carried short javelins for throwing.

The Sassanian Cataphract also used a “horned” saddle. Sassanian wall carvings in Iran illustrate versions with two horns, four horns and two horns with a rounded cantle. This reconstruction was done by Ardeshir Radpour.

The four horns of the Roman saddle, remind me a bit of the four “prongs” of the pack saddle. A pack saddle is used for transporting goods on horseback. It has no stirrups of course, and the packs are secured by tying ropes around the four prongs.

All of which brings me to an interesting passage in Froissart’s Chronicles.

I refer to the section entitled “The English in Ireland” written c.1394-95. In it, Froissart recounts the tale told to him by Henry Crystede, the King’s esquire. (Henry Kyrkestede) It seems that Crystede had been captured in combat by the Irish, and held captive for seven years. Crystede recounts the great courage and equestrian skills of the “barbaric” Irish.

“No mounted man at arms, however good his horse, can ride so fast they cannot catch him.”

Upon his return to England, Sir Henry is pressed into service by the English King in helping to “civilize” four Irish Kings who were doing homage to Richard II in Dublin. Sir Henry set about teaching them table manners, and dressing them in fine robes and teaching them to wear breeches.

“…for previously they had felt well enough dressed in an Irish cloak; and they rode a kind of saddle used for pack-horses, without stirrups. It was only with great difficulty that I got them to ride on the kind of saddles we have.” (Emphasis added)

This entry is particularly noteworthy in as much as Sir Henry goes on to detail how the Irish held their own knighting ceremony for boys as young as seven.

“The young aspirant has to joust with light lances, such as he can easily hold, against a shield set up in a meadow on a post. The more lances he breaks, the greater the honor for him.”

Clearly then, we see a 14th century culture of knighthood, tilting at a quintain or pell, with enough shock to break a light lance, WITHOUT STIRRUPS. The section makes it quite clear that the Irish were formidable opponents against the more heavily armored English, who were certainly employing stirrups.

Lest anyone think Froissart’s observations were a fluke, I refer to the writings of a French clerk- Jean Creton – who accompanied Richard II on his second expedition to Ireland in 1399. Creton describes a meeting which took place between Art MacMurrough and Thomas, Earl of Gloucestor.

“Between two woods, at some distance from the sea, I beheld Macmore [sic] and a body of the Irish, more than I can number, descend the mountain. He had a horse without housing or saddle, which were was so fine and good that it had cost him, they said, four hundred cows; for there is little money in the country, wherefore their usual traffic is only cattle. In coming down it galloped so hard that, in my opinion, I never in all my life saw hare, deer, sheep or any other animal, I declare to you for a certainty, run with such speed as it did. In his hand he bore a great long dart, which he cast with much skill.” (Emphasis added)

Again, we have another contemporary reference to the Irish mounted troops – in this case riding without “housing” or saddle. The Irish were known to ride bareback but it is possible that Creton did not SEE a smaller style saddle beneath a cloak, or noticing that he rode without stirrups, assumed there was no saddle. Either way, clearly the Irish were seen as under equipped compared to their English counterparts.(1) And yet they did not hesitate to engage in combat and take prisoners of the English knights.

But what to make of his reference that the chieftain “… bore a great long dart, which he cast with much skill.” One might be tempted to say that without saddle he could ONLY throw the “great long dart” and would never couch it. But by referencing Froissart’s contemporary mention of tilting at posts and breaking “light” lances, I think it is more likely that the Irish utilized a very light lance – something longer than a “spear” or javelin but not as heavy as the lances used by the English. Such a lance could be used over hand, underhand, thrown OR couched – just like the images on the Bayeux tapestry illustrate.

Sections of the Bayeux Tapestry illustrating lances held overhand and underhand.

I have been unable to find pictorial reference for the “Irish saddle” that Froissart mentions. My own experience with “X” framed pack saddles make me wonder if a similar frame were not employed by the Irish. The projecting frames of the pack saddles used through the 18th and 19th century, remind me of the four protruding “horns” of the Roman saddle reconstructed by Peter Connoly.

Could the Irish have been riding a type or retro “Roman Saddle” as late as the fourteenth century? Could these Roman saddles and cavalry tactics have languished in “barbaric” Ireland as the tide of Rome receded from the British Isles? That is a topic that awaits further archeological development. (2) (3)

The point of this article is to illustrate that mounted combat using light lance without stirrups or indeed without saddles was possible, and moderately successful against the more heavily armored and saddled opponents. Just as unsaddled Native Americans proved effective against the U.S. Cavalry.

Mounted combat BENEFITTED from the use of stirrups – but did not DEPEND on them. Just as the later development of the lance rest mounted on breastplates AIDED in the use of heavier and longer lances in the joust, the use of the rests followed after the use of heavier longer lances.

Practicing tilting at quintains or jousting in tournaments is good training for a knight. It does not necessarily follow that that particular skill will be used in a particular encounter or battle. The use of the couched lance, or the mounted charge with couched lances – either against other mounted troupes or against foot soldiers – depended as much on the terrain and tactics of the moment than anything else.

I have a friend who is in the 82nd Airborne division. He regularly practices jumping out of aircraft to keep his training current. He served a tour in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, seeing action both times. Never once did he jump into combat. It simply was not called for in the particular actions that he engaged in.

The stirrup was developed to aid in various tasks in horse riding. It makes virtually anything you can do on a horse easier to do by giving the rider more stability. It came AFTER humanity began to ride horses. The development spread slowly from the east to the west. It helps to mount; it adds stability to the rider in combat and is useful for any number of purposes. The stirrup then, was one more development in the gradual advance of the use of shock tactics – but not the absolute “defining” one.

Without the saddle, equestrian combat was still practical in one form or another. Without the stirrup, shock combat was still possible. Without the lance rest, shock combat was still practiced.

The use of the lance helped create the need for a saddle; the appearance of the saddle enabled better use of the lance (in particular more efficient “couching”). The development of the stirrup provided better stability in the saddle for numerous purposes, including better couching ability.

Better couching ability led to increased armor. (Also influenced by better archery.) The increase in armor led to the development of heavier lances. Heavier lances and improved archery led to the development of plate armor. It is difficult to “couch/clench” the lance in the armpit with armored rerebrace and breastplate. The shock of impact tends to push the lance backwards under the arm. This led to the development of the lance rest and grapper. The lance rest took the weight of the lance and along with a grapper or “stop” on the lance, allowed for the impact to be translated more directly to the breastplate and therefore the torso.

Lance rest folded “up” and out of the way.
(Photos courtesy Ken Mondschein)

With the leather or steel grapper ring on the back of the lance, the weight of the lance and force of the impact was no longer focused on the hand. The lance rest and grapper led to the development of still heavier lances.

It’s important to understand that just as weapons today are shaped by a series of advances in both offensive and defensive technology; so too were the tools of the battlefield in the medieval era. Additionally, all of these developments influenced, and were influenced by the “sport” of the tournament. Eventually tournament armor was developed specifically for the sport that was not used on the battlefield. By the high middle ages, the fully armored knight utilized highly specialized armor and weaponry to perform jousts as a spectacle to be observed by the court and assembled populace.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.” – wrote the great media guru Marshall McLuhan. He was speaking of television – but the sentiment is apropos throughout the history of man and his inventions; especially those of warfare.

(1) In 1366 the Kilkenny Parliament passed the Statutes of Kilkenny. This was done as an attempt to prevent any further “loss” of English customs and culture by those who had migrated to Ireland and settled there becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, Among other things, the statutes forbade the Anglo-Irish to marry native Irish, to speak Gaelic or to play Irish games (including a kind of polo). Additionally they were not allowed to wear Irish dress or ride bareback.

A Statute of the Fortieth Year of King Edward III., enacted in a parliament held in Kilkenny, A.D. 1367, before Lionel Duke of Clarence, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. (Author: [unknown])

Article 3) Also, it is ordained and established, that every Englishman do use the English language, and be named by an English name, leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish; and that every Englishman use the English custom, fashion, mode of riding and apparel, according to his estate; …

Article 6) Also, whereas a land, which is at war, requires that every person do render himself able to defend himself, it is ordained, and established, that the commons of the said land of Ireland, who are in the different marches at war, do not, henceforth, use the plays which men call horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen, to the weakening, of the defence of the said land, and other plays which men call coiting; but that they do apply and accustom themselves to use and draw bows, and throw lances, and other gentlemanlike games, whereby the Irish enemies may be the better checked by the liege people and commons of these parts; and if any do or practise the contrary, and of this be attainted, they shall be taken and imprisoned, and fined at the will of our lord the king.

(2) British Archaeology, no 14, May 1996: Features – Yes, the Romans did invade Ireland – And we don’t need Roman forts as evidence, says Richard Warner.

… Ancient Irish literary myths are not, nowadays, accepted as “history,” but some of Ireland’s finest scholars have accepted them as a shadow of history. One myth tells of an Irish chieftan, Tuathal, who spent some time in Britain early in the present era and returned with an army to seize power in the Irish Midlands. Curiously, Tacitus tells us that Agricola, while pondering the invasion of Ireland, had with him an Irish chieftain for use in just such an exercise. At about the same time, Juvenal specifically tells us, Roman “arms had been taken beyond the shores of Ireland.” The myth of Tuathal connects him to a number of Irish places, some of which have been excavated and have produced Roman material of the late 1st or early 2nd centuries AD. Indeed, the sparse inland distribution of early Roman material matches Tuathal’s “mythical” campaign remarkably well.

… It is not acceptable to dismiss this concatenation of evidence simply on the grounds that neither a Roman stone fortress nor straight road have been found. Nor may we easily dismiss the extraordinary fact that the material and, to a great extent, social culture of the upper class Irish from the 6th century on owes far more to Roman than to native Irish precursors. To give just two examples among many: the favoured Irish cloak-fastener from the 4th-11th century, the penannular brooch, evolved from a Romano-British brooch; and the early medieval Irish sword was, both in form and in name, a borrowing from that of the Roman army.

Another look at the same evidence:

(3)The Archaeology of Mediveal Ireland by Nancy Edwards – Bridle bits and occasionally spurs have been found on some of the sites of known high status, such as Lagore, Knowth and Ballinderry I, and at Ballycatteen, Co. Cork, a copper-allow enameled roundel with attachments for straps has been identified as a bridle ornament. Though the curious grave from Navan, Co. Meath is probably Viking the highly decorated copper-alloy horse trapping among the grave goods are certainly native, and similar examples have been found in Viking graves in Norway, suggesting that both horses and their harness may have been considered worth raiding. Horses would also have been used on the farm, though not for heavy duties such as ploughing, and as pack animals; a fragmentary wooden object from Ballinderr I has been plausibly identified as part of a pack saddle.