War in the 12th century

Richard the Lionheart was involved in numerous conflicts throughout his life. War at this time was very frequent and was waged according to customs and rules that were very different from those of more recent periods.

Who did the fighting?
Chevalier du XIIème siècle
Chevalier du XIIème siècle, (armée de la bête dans liebanensis, commentarius in apocalypsin, XIIème siècle BNF).

In the 12th century, there was no professional or standing army. When a lord or king went to war, he summoned his vassals, who had the duty of answering his call. The men summoned in this way were called the “ban”. The lords came accompanied by their “households”, their entourage of knights. This collection of various bodies of troops was called the feudal host. The fighting men who composed it were knights, i.e., fighters on horseback, and troops of armed men of various origins - conscripted peasants, mercenaries, etc.

From the 12th century, other fighters were increasingly present on the battlefield: the sergeants at arms of the urban guards. When the towns freed themselves from the control of the feudal lords, they often received the right to maintain a militia designed to stand guard on their ramparts and defend them in case of siege. Thus, although war was normally the preferred activity of the nobility, numerous commoners (i.e., non-nobles) took part in the conflicts that brought bloodshed to the kingdom of France and Europe in general.

But in the 12th century, the fighter par excellence was the knight. The knight of the Middle Ages was an elite fighter, formidable, well equipped and well trained. The French knights in particular were known throughout Europe for their bravery.


Scène de bataille
Scène de bataille (dans Roman de Thèbes, XIVème siècle, BNF).

The classic pitched battle of our imagination was in fact very rare in the Middle Ages. It was an exceptional event, brought about by powerful lords or sovereigns; the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 are examples. But in the 12th century, almost no battle as major had occurred, although numerous clashes had taken place. During these great set pieces, seen both as test and divine judgement, the two armies faced each other and were arranged in battle order.

The objective in the 12th century was to crush the enemy swiftly by a cavalry charge. There was not really any battle plan or coherent strategy. The “commanders”, i.e., the great lords, were in the thick of the fighting and led their men by example, including the king himself sometimes; this approach could be criticised on the grounds that they were not able to direct their army according to a predetermined strategy.


Siège (Siège de Jérusalem (1099), dans Guillaume de Tyr, Historia , XIIIème siècle, BNF).

When at the right distance, the knights launched their horses into a gallop, their long lances wedged under their arms. The impact when they reached the enemy troops was extremely violent. Many troops fled and scattered after been subjected to such an assault. As the fighting continued, the knights found themselves in the mêlée. They abandoned their lances, which were often broken in the impact, and drew their swords. There, too, they had no set formations or predetermined tactics, just the knight fighting in a quest for personal fame and military glory. The concept of discipline, very important in the Roman legions of the Classical Period, was absent from the feudal wars of the Middle Ages.

Although very violent, these combats were, in fact, rarely deadly. The knights, well protected, were not trying to kill each other but to put each other out of action, in order to claim a ransom later. The ransom was a very important source of revenue in time of war for lords and knights.

But the majority of acts of war in the Middle Ages were skirmishes, raids, ambushes and, in particular, sieges. The aim was to weaken the enemy by pillaging and ravaging his land until he gave in. Armies on campaign went from stronghold to stronghold, devastating everything on their way. When they came to a castle or the ramparts of a town they besieged it.

The assault only came when the attacker had comfortably superior numbers. It was a very costly operation in terms of men and resources. The fighters, including the knights on foot, mounted the assault of the walls with ladders and other siege towers. They had to make their way through a hail of arrows, crossbow bolts, stones, burning tar and all sorts of missiles.

Once they arrived at the top of the ramparts, they engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting until the defenders yielded or the attackers were repulsed. It was often necessary to make numerous assaults one after the other before being able to take the objective. Siege engines, such as trebuchets and other catapults, as well as mining could create a breach in the wall and thus make entering the fortress easier. But it was always a costly business which, if it went badly, could pose problems for an entire expedition.

Consequently, most armies contented themselves with making a blockade around the stronghold and waiting until its occupants ran out of supplies. Sieges, therefore, could last for months.


Offensive weapons

Personnage armé d’une lance
Personnage armé d’une lance (Lettre ornée, dans Isidorus Hispalensis (s.), Mysticorum Expositiones Sacramentorum , XIIème siècle BNF).

The principle weapon of the knight was the sword, which was also the symbol of his rank. The sword was a fearsome weapon. In the 12th century, it was a one-handed, wielded in conjunction with a shield. Contrary to popular belief, these swords were very light, weighing a little more than a kilogram on average. It was a weapon designed for cutting, not crushing. The sword became relatively inefficient against a well protected opponent.

This is the reason that, very early on, other weapons were developed, such as the mace, the one- or two-handed battle-axe and the flail, that strange weapon consisting of a metal ball attached to a handle by a chain. These weapons, blunt rather than sharp, were designed to perforate armour and were feared on the battlefield.

The cavalry lance was the knight’s other principal weapon. Employed “at the level” (held horizontally), it could be devastating in the charge. It consisted of a long shaft of wood, up to four metres long, with a sharp iron tip. The knight wedged it under his arm, point towards the front, and launched his horse into a gallop. Reaching the enemy, he stood up in his stirrups and put all his weight behind the lance. The wooden shaft often broke at this point. In tournaments, the point was blunted to avoid serious injury to the opponent, but this did not prevent the death of numerous participants.

Foot soldiers fought most of the time with pole arms. In the 12th century, it was the spear that was still used most by foot soldiers. The other weapons of these fighters could be knives, daggers and other similar blades. The sword was less widespread but was also in use, although the quality of those used by common soldiers would have been poorer than those wielded by the nobility.

The principal projectile weapons were the bow and the crossbow. The bow, known in all periods, could, when used in great numbers, rain down so many arrows on the enemy as to make them retreat. The crossbow was even more fearsome. It fired bolts, small arrows specially invented for the crossbow, with incredible power, capable of piercing the strongest armour. It was so dangerous that the Church tried to forbid its use between Christians. On the other hand, it took a very long time to re-load. It was one of these weapons which struck Richard the Lionheart at Châlus in 1199 and put an end to his life.

Defensive armament

Chevalier arborant un équipement contemporain de Richard Cœur de Lion
Chevalier arborant un équipement contemporain de Richard Cœur de Lion ((Job avertis du massacre Miniature d’une Bible du XIIème siècle, BNF).

The knight in armour is an image that is automatically associated with the Middle Ages. However, heavy armour of plate steel, evoking the Knights of the Round Table, did not appear until the 14th century, and was in use in the 15th and 16th centuries. During the preceding centuries, the strongest and most widespread protection for knights was the coat of mail. It consisted of a sort of garment made of thousands of steel rings of about 1cm in diameter, put together in such a way that each ring was joined to four others. It formed a supple protection, flexible and following the shape and movements of its wearer.

In the 12th century, it consisted of a long tunic reaching to the knees or lower, called a “hauberk”, and held in at the waist by a belt and shoulder strap. The large flaps of mail which thus fell below the waist were designed to protect the legs of the knight when he was in the saddle. This long tunic also had sleeves which came to the wrists or formed a sort of mail mitten designed to protect the wearer’s hands.

At neck level, a “camail”, a sort of hood of mail, and a “ventail” which hid part of the face, were added. Most of the time it was attached to the hauberk and the two elements formed one single piece. In combat, this hood was pulled over the head and served to support the helmet. Thus it protected the sides of the face and skull.

Many fighters did not have the means to pay for this kind of extremely costly protection. Therefore they resorted to forms of protection made of leather and material. Leather breastplates offered only nominal protection against sword cuts and the point of a lance. For this reason the leather was often reinforced by pieces of metal, such as nails or small plates or rings fixed directly on to the leather. This type of protection is called a “byrnie”. A gambeson, a sort of thick, padded tunic, was often the only protection for the foot soldiers.

Helmets in the 12th century were not yet the helms that enclosed the whole head. Most were helmets with a nose guard. They consisted of a metal skullcap, in shape conical, hemispherical, or in the Phrygian style, with a nasal protector in the form of a strip of metal of varying widths coming down over the nose in order to protect it. For the more wealthy knights, a new type of helmet had appeared, the helmet with a visor or face mask. It consisted of a skullcap to which was fixed a visor with holes to see and breathe through. These helmets were the forerunners of the great cylindrical helms of the 13th century.

Finally, a last essential form of protection: the shield. The 12th century was a period of transition and the shield was the descendant of those that are seen on the Bayeux Tapestry. It was large and almond-shaped, carried on the left and designed to protect its possessor from the shoulder to the knee; it was particularly useful on horseback where the legs on each side of the saddle were very vulnerable. The shield also took on an important role in this period because it became the ideal way of displaying its bearer’s coat of arms.

From the 11th century, the lords began to make use of heraldic symbols designed to represent their lineage and identity. The coat of arms, therefore, became the means of recognising a knight.

Siege weapons

The siege engines of the Middle Ages were the descendants of those used in Antiquity. It was a continual process of development, bringing about a parallel development in fortifications. This arms race ended with the invention of firearms, the perfection of which rendered useless fortifications and armour alike and opened the way to the modern army.

In the 12th century, the most common form of siege engine was the ballista. It was a kind of huge bow which fired either enormous arrows or streams of rocks with great force. However, the most formidable of these engines were the trebuchets that originated in the East. This weapon involved a system of counterweights which acted on an arm ending in a sort of enormous sling. A trebuchet was capable of throwing a stone ball of more than 200kg a distance of 300 or even 400 metres.

The use of several of these engines could rain a mass of stone on to the besieged fortress and reduce it to a pile of rubble. However, these weapons were difficult and expensive to design, they had to be constructed on site and their accuracy left something to be desired. For that reason, they were never used against an army but always against a fixed defensive position.

During sieges, siege towers were also sometimes employed. These huge constructions in wood were mounted on wheels and dragged to the foot of the ramparts after being filled with men who could therefore reach the rampart relatively well protected from the numerous missiles which were thrown at them. Battering rams to break down the doors, trenches and mining, a technique aiming at digging a gallery under the foundations of a wall and causing its collapse, were also used during an assault.

War was the basis of the chivalric culture which became symbolic of the Middle Ages. Richard the Lionheart carved out a reputation as an outstanding fighter, an incarnation of the values of the warrior aristocracy of his time. It was largely his exploits as a warrior, true or not, that forged the legendary reputation that continues to this day.