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Rupert Willoughby describes the battle of Durazzo (1081), arguing that the Norman cavalry's new `shock charge', first seen at Hastings, decisively altered medieval warfare.

THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS, decisive in itself and one of the best documented in medieval history, was also a conflict between opposing methods of warfare.

Since antiquity, the main cavalry weapon, the lance, had either been used for stabbing or thrusting at an enemy, or had been hurled like a javelin. These traditional techniques, and their limitations, had been clearly demonstrated at Hastings, where repeated cavalry charges by the Normans against the `shield-wall', or `war-hedge', of the English infantry on Senlac Hill had proved ineffective through most of the day.

According to the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry, the Normans had a preference at Hastings for hurling their lances. However, there are also depictions in a couple of panels of an entirely new technique: a minority of knights are seen to charge with a heavier type of lance which is gripped under the armpit and aimed across the horse's head. Associated technical advances, such as the raising of the saddle fore and aft so that the knight was not unseated on impact, are also illustrated in the Tapestry, which provides the earliest iconographic evidence of these innovations.

This tactic of charging with `couched lance', which was evidently in its experimental stage at Hastings, appears to have become the general norm by the time of the First Crusade, launched in 1096. The earliest complete version of the Chanson de Roland was most probably composed in the last two decades of the eleventh century. The fact that its heroes routinely charge with couched lance (Oliver charges at an enemy and `clean through his breast drives lance and pennon both') implies that the tactic had by this time been universally adopted by `men of honour'.

The new tactic provided the mounted warrior with a sure means of knocking down or unhorsing an opponent. Henceforth, the cavalry charge on its own would be capable of breaking an enemy line. The Frankish cavalry could be transformed from an assault arm, which was only doubtfully effective against a resistant enemy (such as the tightly-packed English ranks at Hastings), into a shock arm, which was devastatingly effective, and likely to prove decisive on any battlefield.

The implications of this revolution are considerable. The adoption of the new tactic was to affect the very shape of Western society, for the associated expense and training were to give rise to the bond of chivalry. More importantly, the tactic provided the Franks with military superiority as they set out to fulfil their self-adopted role as the leaders of Christendom. The real-life Crusaders, like the paladins of the Chanson de Roland, were confident that their wars against Islam were inspired and blessed by God, and that martyrdom was assured to the fallen. The shock charge must therefore have seemed like a God-given instrument. Admittedly, it was not guaranteed to prevail against overwhelming numbers, as Roland in the poem discovers at Roncesvalles; but when correctly and favourably deployed it made the Franks all but invincible. So the Crusaders appeared to their enemies, none of whom were any match for them tactically. `A mounted Kelt [i.e. Frank] is irresistible,' wrote the Byzantine Anna Komnene; `he would bore his way through the walls of Babylon'.

The twin and inseparable military developments that had apparently occurred by 1100 -- the finished concept of the Holy War and the perfected shock charge, which was to ensure the supremacy of the Western knight for centuries to come -- were factors which significantly shaped the course of world history.

Although the perfection of the shock charge can thus be dated to the time of the First Crusade, its evolution during the thirty years after Hastings has never been traced in detail. Yet the evidence for this evolution is to be found in Byzantine sources, as the new tactic had already had a devastating impact on the fortunes of the Empire, particularly as the means by which another Norman army had, on October 18th, 1081, defeated the Byzantine forces at Durazzo.

The Battle of Durazzo was a key event in the background to the First Crusade, the immediate impulse to which was, by no coincidence, provided by the Byzantines themselves. When he appealed for western military aid to the Council of Piacenza on March 17th, 1095, the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had not foreseen that he would provoke a `mass migration' of militant Latins. The `official' Crusaders -- the Frankish armies that were controlled by various lords with the backing of the Pope -- nevertheless conformed entirely to his expectations. Indeed, in the early stages of the campaign, these disciplined troops were instrumental in the recovery of much of his lost Asian territory. By instructing his ambassadors to emphasise the Turkish domination of the Holy Land, Alexios had demonstrated a sound understanding of the Westerners' latent `crusading' zeal. As the commander of his forces at the time of Durazzo, it is certain that the Emperor was also-keenly aware of Western tactical superiority.

Alexios had, in fact, had a lifetime's experience of Western soldiers on which to base such knowledge. Byzantine contact with the `barbarian' Franks had vastly increased in the eleventh century, owing largely to the infiltration and eventual conquest of the Empire's Italian provinces (Apulia, Calabria and Sicily) by Norman adventurers. It was their victories against the Byzantines, whom they had come to perceive as cowardly and effeminate, that had, in their own view, launched the Normans, `famed as fierce horsemen', on their providential mission.

In Alexios's father's generation, the Empire had indeed fallen into the hands of an effete civilian party, based on Constantinople, which had set out recklessly to dismantle the traditional structure of the Byzantine army. The native regiments that had sustained the Empire for centuries against its hostile neighbours had been neglected and in many cases' abolished, the burden of defence being placed instead on irregularly-recruited mercenary companies.

As the Norman historian William of Apulia, writing in the 1090s, candidly admits, Norman soldiers were generally available to the highest bidder. From the first Byzantine recruitment drives in 1042, they proved themselves indispensable to a succession of emperors, who employed them on the eastern frontier or in the famous Varangian (Viking) Guard. The dominant Norman family in Italy, the Hautevilles, had not, however, co-operated. They had profited instead from imperial neglect and were prominent in securing the victory at Civitate (1053) over a papal army, an event which was the counterpart of Hastings in the Norman conquest of southern Italy. The ravaging Normans were never again seriously threatened by either Rome or Constantinople; and, indeed, the Papacy was obliged to accept and in time condone their activities, to the extent of actively supporting the invasion of the Byzantine Empire in 1081 that was to be confronted by Alexios at Durazzo. Robert Guiscard of Hauteville, strongest and most ambitious of the Norman chiefs, could never have contemplated such an invasion without the blessing of Pope Gregory VII. However, in spite of his legalistic claims to be the avenger of injustice and the `defender of the Christian faith', the idea behind it was to take advantage of the Empire in a moment of chronic weakness, to which, in recent years, Guiscard's fellow Franks had in no small measure contributed.

To resist the Norman onslaught had been Alexios's first duty as emperor. He had assumed his responsibilities aged twenty-five knowing that the Empire was `almost at its last gasp'. In the words of his daughter and biographer, Anna Komnene, it had been
   slowly perishing over a long period; [it was] without armies and without
   money, for all its wealth, squandered to no good purpose, had now been

The decline of the army, reduced to a rabble of farmhands, and its subsequent defeat, were attributable as much to continuing internal squabbles as to the might of its foreign enemies.

Opportunistic Frankish mercenaries had thrived on the ensuing chaos. With only four hundred of his fellow Franks behind him, the Norman captain Roussel de Bailleul had deserted the imperial army and set out to terrorise and plunder Anatolia -- entirely successfully until the eighteen-year-old Alexios, in a precocious demonstration of his military talents, outwitted and captured him in 1074. Across the Adriatic, Roussel's old comrade Robert Guiscard, whose designs on the mainland had long been suspected, must surely have been watching his progress with interest. Alexios, dutifully loyal to a couple of incompetent emperors, was kept busy during the rest of the decade in combating patriotic uprisings in the Empire's European provinces, notably Macedonia and Thrace. But when Alexios himself seized power in April 1081, `national unity' could no longer be counted on, though the full military might of the Empire was at his disposal as he set out that October to confront the invaders.

Guiscard had landed at Avlona, in modern Albania, at the end of May 1081. By June 17th his forces -- said by Anna to number 30,000, of whom 1,300 are known to have been knights -- had journeyed up the coast and were encamped outside Dyrrachion (modern Durazzo), the regional capital. Possession of this great city, `the key to the Empire's western door', and a base for controlling the Adriatic, was vital to both Guiscard and Alexios.

Formidably defended, Durazzo straddled a hilly outcrop at the end of a long, narrow peninsula, parallel with the mainland, but separated from it by some brackish lagoons. Its mighty sixth-century walls were wide enough for four horsemen to ride them abreast. The defences adjoined the sea to the south and east, whilst the western wall and the citadel commanded the neighbouring heights. Guiscard pitched his camp on a plain outside the city's weakest point, its north-facing wall, with the lagoons at his back. His original intention was to invest the city by both land and sea -- he had a large fleet at his disposal -- and to take it by assault, for which purpose he had constructed a number of wooden siege towers.

Aged sixty-four, Guiscard had no time to spare for a lengthy blockade, although the taking of a besieged city by assault was unprecedented, treachery or hunger within having in the past been the only proven means of their reduction. Such had been Guiscard's own experience at the siege of Bari (1068-71), which had ended in his expulsion of the Byzantines from their last foothold in Italy. In that case, he had finally prevailed over a city deemed impregnable by demoralising its inhabitants; but it is interesting to note that he had experimented there with siege machinery including a `wall-dominating siege-tower', a contraption whose only recorded precedent in the medieval west had been built in 1042 by the Baresi themselves, at a time when Norman knights were supporting them in rebellion against the imperial government. The Baresi are likely to have borrowed their techniques from their Byzantine masters, who had probably inherited them from antiquity -- Anna casually remarks that her father, a keen student of military science, was later to design siege engines himself -- but a study of Byzantine military texts is needed to reveal the full extent of Guiscard's innovation, and his part in the development of so familiar a feature of medieval warfare.

The Norman plans were upset by the arrival of a powerful fleet under the Doge of Venice, an historic ally of the Empire. The experienced Venetians engaged the Normans at sea and routed them, prompting Durazzo's Byzantine garrison under George Palaiologos to sally out of the city and inflict heavy losses on Guiscard's troops. Roles were now reversed as the Normans, their supplies from Italy cut off, found themselves under virtual siege in their camp.

Alexios, who had enemies enough at home, felt that conditions now favoured his own departure for Albania. No figure is given for the army he had patiently assembled. It is said to have been very large, yet was still probably smaller than the Norman force. The native elements consisted of garrison troops whom he had recalled from Anatolia, together with untrained irregulars -- refugees displaced by the Turkish invasion -- who substituted for the mighty legions of the past. More significant were the European levies, the cavalry corps from Macedonia and Thrace, which had survived half a century of upheaval intact -- although their discipline was questionable -- and whose numbers in previous years have been put at 15,000. Also under the Emperor's command were more than 2,000 Turks, 2,800 heretical `Paulicians', and probably a corps of Armenians from Cilicia. The best soldiers were a Varangian Guard, estimated at 1,400 men, composed largely of Englishmen, who, as Orderic Vitalis and other sources tell us, were fugitives from the oppression and rape of their country by William the Conqueror.

A great Roman road, the Via Egnatia, drove through mostly mountainous country to connect the Byzantine capital with Durazzo. Despite the Emperor's efforts to conceal his approach, Guiscard was alerted and prepared to meet him in full strength, tenderising the garrison while he waited by attacking with his siege engines. Having cut off all the mountain and river passes, Alexios nevertheless managed to arrive unexpectedly on the evening of October 15th, when, as William of Apulia puts it, his army `cloaked the hills and the plains like locusts'. A reconnaissance of the area decided Alexios to bring his troops forward to the slope of some low hills, which faced the Norman camp beyond the lagoons. His more experienced advisers urged him to avoid confronting the Normans, and to wear them down by a long blockade. Alexios resolved, however, to attack the defiant Guiscard, who was about to signal his commitment to victory by setting fire to his boats.

That night, the Emperor's plan to co-ordinate an assault on the enemy camp was anticipated by Guiscard who, in the small hours of October 18th, manoeuvred his entire force round to the mainland and arranged it in battle order. His right wing was commanded by Ami, Count of Giovinazzo, his left by Bohemond, his redoubtable eldest son. Cheated of surprise, Alexios drew up his own battle-lines on the hillside, placing the generals Melissenos and Pakourianos, commander of the European levies, on his right and left wings. The Englishmen of the Varangian Guard, under Nampites, were ordered to dismount and stand in front, no doubt forming their legendary `warhedge', with a strong contingent of archers to their rear. There may have been veterans of Hastings present, consciously re-enacting the events on Senlac Hill against a new Norman foe.

As dawn broke, the garrison troops from Durazzo and skirmishers detailed to fall on the Norman camp found it deserted and in flames. Meanwhile, Alexios advanced his troops into the plain and battle was joined. William of Apulia describes how `the first collision' with the Byzantines had a powerful effect on Guiscard's army, largely made up of conscripts from southern Italy. They turned and fled; and many knights, involuntarily or not, were caught up in their flight. The left wing was beaten back to the lagoons and had no means of escaping to the camp, for Guiscard had destroyed the connecting bridge. A shower of Byzantine arrows rained down on these fugitives. Elsewhere, the infantrymen of Ami's division were being pursued across the sandy beach to the east of Durazzo and into the sea. Here they were easy prey for the Byzantine and Venetian ships which patrolled the shoreline, whilst the Norman knights on the beach proved just as pitiless to the would-be deserters.

The Byzantines seemed assured of victory; but it was now that the lack of discipline amongst even their professional elements became the cause of their undoing. As most embarked on a disorderly scramble for horses and loot, the Englishmen were left to finish off the enemy forces on their own, a task which Guiscard quickly perceived was beyond them. He set about rallying his men, exhorting them to follow St Peter's banner; and he was assisted by his wife, Sichelgaita of Salerno, who, in full war apparel, galloped along the beach, threatening to kill any deserters. On Guiscard's orders, a regrouped detachment of infantry fell upon the weary Englishmen and destroyed them; a few survivors who sought sanctuary in a nearby chapel were burned alive inside it.

Heavily outnumbered by their Byzantine counterparts, the Norman cavalry had hitherto been kept in reserve. Now, however, Guiscard felt confident enough to lead a cavalry charge on what remained of the Byzantine line. This charge decided the course of the battle. `In the end, some fell fighting on the field ... others looked to their own safety and fled.' Alexios himself was one of the last to escape. A man of reckless physical courage, he performed prodigious feats of horsemanship to out-manoeuvre the encircling Normans, and the details of his heroic flight probably needed no embellishment by his admiring daughter. William of Apulia estimates the Byzantine losses at 5,000, not counting numberless Turks. The Byzantine camp was captured and yielded a rich booty. Among the Norman knights, however, losses are assessed -- quite credibly -- at no more than thirty.

Guiscard's victory at the Battle of Durazzo gave him freedom of movement in Albania; and, abandoned by the Venetians, who had lost faith in Byzantine prospects, the strategic city itself soon fell to him. The Normans were now in a position to occupy the western-most provinces of the Empire in preparation for an advance to the east, which, with Guiscard's son Bohemond in command, was underway by 1083. It is only thanks to the skill and courage of Alexios, who succeeded in deflecting the full force of Norman aggression and in cutting off Bohemond's overextended lines of communication, that historians have minimised or overlooked the lasting consequences of Durazzo.

The battle was not to be the final nail in Byzantium's coffin, but it was a defeat so crushing that it called for extensive reconstruction. The last of the sinews that had sustained the Empire for half a millennium, the levies of Macedonia and Thrace, had been decimated, having already proved themselves to be useless. Although there is evidence that Alexios continued a rigorous policy of recruitment in the European provinces, the enlisted men were not the mainstay but an insignificant part of his future armies, and they were foot-soldiers, not the traditional cavalry. The Emperor placed heavy reliance instead on foreign mercenaries, especially Turks and Franks, ironically including almost the entire strength of Guiscard's invading force, the victors of Durazzo, which, by Guiscard's death in 1085, had found itself stranded in the Empire. The core of Alexios's army, however, was an extension of the armed retinue by which, as a typical Byzantine aristocrat, he had been served before his accession.

Another effect of the battle was the heavy losses sustained by the Byzantine officer class. The list of those killed in the Alexiad, Anna's epic biography of her father, is extended in an epitome to give the impression that the Empire had lost the flower of its nobility. But a matter of still greater historical importance which scholars have totally neglected is the means by which Guiscard achieved his great victory. Here is how Anna describes the decisive moment:
   Robert, like some winged horseman, with the rest of his forces charged and
   pushed back the Roman line, in many places tearing it apart.

She says later that the lesson of Durazzo was that `the first charge of Keltic cavalry was irresistible'. This is surely evidence that the battle was the first in recorded history whose outcome was decided by the shock charge, the tactic which, experimented with by Norman knights at Hastings, was fully developed by the time of the First Crusade.

Throughout the remaining years of the war, Alexios made strenuous efforts to prevent his troops from facing another Norman charge, which he tried to thwart with caltraps and upturned wagons. Later, when he had recruited the invaders into his own army, he was quick to turn their skills to his advantage. For instance, in a campaign against the Turks in 1086, it is the Normans who are ordered
   to make the first charge against the barbarians. With their long lances at
   the ready they swept down on the enemy at full gallop like a flash of
   lightning, cut through their ranks and put them into headlong flight.

The Emperor's Frankish corps, on his right wing, was partly responsible, moreover, for his victory at Lebounion in 1091, when the nomadic Petchenegs, who had long terrorised the Balkans, were obliterated as a nation. These experiences, vividly described by Anna, are the background to Alexios's calculated appeal for western mercenaries at Piacenza which was to result in the First Crusade.

Although the Alexiad was written in the 1140s and its author described events that had occurred before she was born or during her infancy, she was not imprecise in these matters. A scholar with impeccable credentials, Anna researched her subject in the imperial archives and clearly consulted the relevant military reports and maps, such is the detail with which she describes the battlefield topography and dispositions (to the extent of naming every insignificant church and stream). She gives precise and plausible numbers for the Paulician corps, and, since she describes her father compiling a register of these troops, it is fairly clear that she consulted the document herself. Moreover, she had for years been questioning participants from both sides, and taking careful notes of their reminiscences. It is therefore inconceivable that she was mistaken in the details of a tactic whose effects were so momentous and devastating.

`Apulian and Calabrian, Sicilian, whose darts fly in swarms; Normans, ripe for incomparable achievement': the exhortation to his troops at Hastings which a poet attributed to Duke William is no longer considered proof that an Italian contingent had participated, but is evidence of the fellow-feeling that existed between the emigres and their homeland, as is the fact that Norman exiles in Italy sent home donations to fund the building of cathedrals. What more likely person to have seized upon and developed a promising tactic that had been tried at Hastings than that vigorous innovator, Robert Guiscard? The Chanson de Roland, which celebrates the new tactic, is littered with oblique references to his war in the Empire: `Ebire' and `Butentrot' are redolent of Epiros and Bouthroton, the province and town where he disembarked his forces; `Baligant' and `Canabeus' of his leading opponents, Palaiologos and Komnenos. It is surely more than a chain of coincidences that links the battlefields of Hastings, Durazzo and the First Crusade.


R. Allen Brown, The Battle of Hastings (Proceedings of the Battle Conference, 1980); D.J.A. Ross, L'originalite de `Turoldus': le maniement de la lance, (Cahiers de Civilisation Medievale, VI (1963); R.H.C. Davies, The Medieval Warhorse (Thames and Hudson, 1989); D.C. Douglas, The `Song of Roland' and the Norman Conquest of England, (French Studies, XIV, 1960); J.-C. Cheynet, Manzikert: un desastre militaire? (Byzantion, L, 1980);`R.-Rogers, Latin Siege Warfare in the Twelfth Century (Clarendon Press, 1992).

Rupert Willoughby is the author of the Pitkin Guide Life in Medieval England, 1066-1485.3
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Title Annotation:innovative lance charge leads to Norman victories
Author:Willoughby, Rupert
Publication:History Today
Date:Aug 1, 1999

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