“Military organization was crucial to the success of the Norman conquest. With strong armies, the Kings could defeat their internal and external enemies on campaign.
With enduring symbols of military power and might, they could intimidate them into lasting submission1″ Military power, and indeed success, was crucial to the Normans during the initial conquest of England. A great deal of this success can be attributed to the skill of the Norman knights and armed forces, as well as the castles built; yet there may be other factors that affected the military success of the Normans.Perhaps one of the greatest and most significant explanations for military success were the Norman knights; as they played multiple roles in ensuring this. William the Conqueror was able to draw on a large pool of potential leaders, given the military nature of the ruling class.
They proved particularly useful as the king could not be everywhere at once, and by have his subjects around the country, he could ensure better control over the country as a whole. However, in a military sense a knight owned a horse and Armour and formed part of the cavalry.The knights in the cavalry were essential to the Norman military success, as there seems to have been a great reliance upon them; they made up a quarter of William’s army at the Battle of Hastings. However, there is some debate amongst historians as to the importance of the cavalry. Richard Glover stresses, from looking at the Tapestry, that there was no uniformity of armament, nor unity of the Norman cavalry charges.
Moreover, he points out that eventually the cavalry were forced to dismount their horses and fight on foot, as more horses were killed.It was suggested by William of Poitiers that William the conqueror had three horses killed from under him) This suggests that the knights in cavalry were not essential to military success. On the other hand, R. Allen Brown writes that the cavalry ensured military success over weaker infantry.
Again, from looking at the tapestry he suggests that the cavalry had the advantage of height, allowing them to damage the Saxon line with overhand strikes with a lance. Either way, it would seem that the knights in a military sense were important as a mobile, well armed and protected force that contributed to Norman military Success.However, the success of the Norman Military can not be given entirely to the Knights, as Castles, the main method of defense and claiming land were equally if not more important. According to William of Poitiers, on landing at Pevensey, William’s first act was to build a castle. More castles were then built as he proceeded to London after the Battle of Hastings, without them William would have struggled to hold the land and by 1068/9 castles were constructed on the King’s order as far apart as Exeter and York.
Castles provided William with both centers of administration and control.They were invaluable assets on the ports, as they allowed reinforcements and supplies to be imported easily and allowed an easy escape route if necessary. Castles also provided a means by which to control a de-centralised country. There were numerous threats from King Sweyn of Denmark and rebellions; for example, In 1071 another revolt broke out. Led by Hereward the rebels captured the Isle of Ely,William personally led the Norman army against Hereward and punished the rebels with mutilation and lifelong imprisonment and built a new castle at Ely.Originally, the castles took the form of the simple Motte and Bailey; but stone castles soon replaced these. This transformation was an indication of the permanence of the Norman military invasion to “a hostile and restless native population2” It would therefore seem that castles played a vital role in ensuring Norman military success. In addition to knights and castles, other factors influenced the military success of the Normans, such as the technique of harrying.
This was a military technique used by William to get the North of England to come under his control. When the rebellions broke out in 1067 to 1069, William’s army burnt the crops, houses and property of the rebels. For example, when William had put down the rebellion in Staffordshire his troops harried land between York and Durham ; to such an extent that the chronicles claimed the land was turned to desert and people died of starvation. This harsh technique of forced submission eventually worked and William obtained control of the North militarily.Moreover, it could be suggested that the extent of the Norman military success was a reflection of the poor condition of England both politically and militarily. Prior to the Norman conquest, England had been particularly de-centralised, which made defense against attack unreliable, particularly with the North being so detached from the south.
For example when Hadrada joined Tostig and landed in Yorkshire to overthrow Harold, the Northern earls Edwin and Morcar did not put a system of defense into action.Another factor that weakened the Anglo-Saxon defenses was the lack of castles to keep invaders at bay. Additionally the Anglo- Saxon system of the Fyrd was weak, and the all or nothing nature of it was a serious drawback, as there was little or no rotation of troops, or any guarantee of obtaining extra soldiers rapidly. This ultimately meant that there was no army waiting or readily available to defend against William when he landed on the south coast. Moreover, the military success of the Normans was also due to William’s leadership of the army and his advanced planning before battle.Before the battle of Hastings, William, according to the twelfth century poet Wace, assembled 696 ships. William also started a diplomatic offensive by winning the support of the Papacy, and made sure that any potential enemies were neutralized through marriages, wars or alliances.
Meanwhile, in the North of England another threat faced Harold, as Harald Hadrada joined forces with Tostig. Harold was surprised by this attack and called up his army to attack at Stamford bridge ; the battle was long and hard but resulted in Harold’s victory.Although this was a boost to Harold’s confidence it meant his troops were tired and unprepared for the advancing attack from William. Harold had called out the Anglo-Saxon Fyrd along the south coast, as he was expecting a Norman attack during the summer of 1066, however, they soon went home having used all their provisions waiting; leaving the south coast “without adequate defenses3”. Thus it can be seen that a combination of Norman preparedness and Anglo-Saxon disarray, the Norman military stood more of a chance.
Yet there is some historical debate about the strength of the Norman Military, especially in the Battle of Hastings. Some historians, such as Fuller and Allen Brown, have viewed the Normans as being more technologically advanced, especially in terms of cavalry warfare. They also see William as the more able general, and the Normans as a more superior army.
They believe that Williams army had the advantage of stronger administration, and that the army was built arounf regulation, control, service and discipline.However, other historians such as Glover and Morillo have argued that the sides were more evenly matched. Nonetheless, the armies tactics were very different. The Anglo-Saxons lead by Harold had marched and ridden from the North, but stood on foot forming a shield, which could wield blows from axes. Harold chose to follow traditional Anglo Saxon methods of using foot troops with a few archers, although the historian Graham Campbell has argued that the Anglo Saxons would have used cavalry too, if their horses had not been exhausted from riding south from Stamford Bridge.In contrast William’s army was made up of three components ; archers, heavy infantry and heavy cavalry.
The archers were skilled and aimed their arrows high forcing the shield to cover their heads; thus leaving them exposed to a cavalry charge. Some historians argue that the Normans placed too much emphasis on the cavalry, as towards the end of the battle most the cavalry dismounted. Moreover, William lost his horse three times from underneath him, which was a huge threat to his life. There is also some historical debate over the use of the fake Norman retreats, or ‘conroi’.Whilst it is argued that this was a tactic employed by the Norman cavalry, other sources claim that in the Battle of Hastings, the cavalry retreated on hearing that William was dead. Yet most sources, included William of Poitiers claim that William – as a strong military leader- rallied his troops from retreat with a speech and into counterattack that resulted in victory. It could be said that the shield wall “acted as an immovable object against the unstoppable force of the Norman cavalry assault. “During the battle, despite their apparent military advantages, made little headway until the Anglo- Saxons followed the phoney Norman retreat, this breaking their shield leaving them open to attack.
It would therefore seem that the Norman tactics in battle meant that military success was more likely. Yet the factor of chance cannot be dismissed as a contributor to the Norman military success. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had Harold waited for his reinforcement troops from London before fighting William.
It was also unfortunate that Harold’s troops had only fought three weeks prior to the battle of Hastings, and this were tired from combat and marching. The Norman military success may have also been different if Harold had died at Stamford Bridges, or if both Harold’s brothers hadn’t been killed in battle. Due to the reliability of the sources we are also not able to determine whether apparently deciding tactics such as the fake retreats were decided course of action or just occurred from a rumour that William was dead. Thus it would seem that chance played a major role in deciding the military success of the Normans.Hence, it would seem that all the factors played a part in ensuring Norman military success; the knights and cavalry ensured good attacking methods whilst the castles ensured control over the kingdom.
Additionally, William’s army tactics helped him to succeed in the conquest. Yet all these factors may not have had any influence had it not been for the bad timing and poor condition of England both in a political and military sense. So the Norman military success between 1066 and 1087 owes itself not only to knights, castles and military strength but also other factors such as chance.