Friday 22 February 2013

Mounted Crossbowmen - some observations

Master WA illustration (detail) c 1475

In planning my Burgundian Coustillers, I recently made a close inspection of a woodcut illustration of mounted soldiers made by the ‘Master WA’. It is one of a series of images understood to show Burgundian soldiers of around 1475; the one most widely reproduced being a row of longbowmen protected by stakes and supported by a rear rank of halberdiers. The images of mounted troops shows men in half armour and helms carrying lances or long spears riding unbarded horses, supported by two further ranks of crossbow-armed horsemen – detail from one is shown above.

I’d not expected the rear ranks to be crossbowmen and had always assumed that all were spear armed coustillers. Coupled with this, other recent contemporary illustrations from the later fifteenth century I’ve looked at, also appears to show mounted crossbowmen fighting closely alongside lance-armed men at arms. This has got me thinking about what was the tactical use of mounted crossbows in the later medieval period?

Now the rest of this post comes with a major health warning. All of the following initial thoughts are based solely on observations of selected medieval illustrations. I have had no access to any primary documents regarding the tactical use of mounted crossbows – although at present I’m not aware that there may be any. It is of course very dangerous to make sweeping assumptions based merely on surviving illustrations. Most medieval artists were unlikely to have had any first-hand experience of warfare – although there are notable exceptions in Diebold Schilling (d 1485) and Urs Graf (d 1528). I’m fully aware of illuminations, such as Froissart’s Chronicles, which show longbows being loosened from horseback in battle which seems an unlikely practice, so using imagery on which to base conclusions is fraught with danger.

However, some reading of secondary materials that I have on fifteenth century warfare does seem both inconclusive and slightly vague on what the battlefield role of mounted crossbowmen was. Numbers of troops classed as 'mounted crossbowmen’ seem to be relatively high as the fifteenth century progressed, particularly in Italy and France (as part of the 'lance'). How they acted in combat is unclear - although it seems they were primarily mobile infanty, such as mounted English longbowmen appear to have been.  Nicole in Osprey's 'European Medieval Tactics 2' suggests that the large numbers noted in Italy were largely foot troops, operating in conjunction with pavisers on the battlefield -with a skirmishing role, screening other troops who were vulnerable to missle fire. Mallet in 'Mercenaries and Masters' notes that crossbowmen were mounted only for campaigning and formed separate dismounted units on the battlefield. It appears that the preference was to employ Stradiots from the Balkans for the role of skirmishing in an engagement, rather than mounted crossbowmen. 

So as mounted crossbowmen are available to select in almost all wargame rule army lists for later medieval armies in western Europe (English ones excepted), usually classed as ‘Light Cavalry’ and in a skirmishing role - do we have an apparent disconnect with actual practice. Could crossbowmen have fought effectively from horseback? My view is most probably they could. Crossbows were widely used for hunting on horseback and are shown as such in illustrations throughout the medieval period; however on the battlefield loading the bow swiftly, whilst remaining on the horse was essential. Following the widespread introduction of the cranequin from circa 1460, this scenario appears to have been more realistic.

This device allowed a rider to remain in the saddle and use handheld winding device to pull the string against the firing nut (often at a high tension) without having to use a stirrup to brace the bow. Several illustrations show crossbowmen on horse both with cranequins and firing crossbows. An intriguing illustration from Germany of circa 1465  shows a possible tactic, mimicking the ancient ‘Parthian shot’, of shooting behind the rider. How accurate this type of shot would be is debatable however.

Hans Talhoffer illustrations c 1467

So what of other illustrations? Are there any which appear to complement the Master WA drawing of a combined lance and crossbow mounted contingent, rather than as the mounted skirmishers of wargame army lists?  Closer investigation of Schilling’s illustrations for the Bernese Chronicles is interesting and consistently shows several battle scenes where plate armoured men at arms and plate armoured crossbowmen are fighting alongside each other. In some a potential coustiller-type, armed with tasselled spear and brigandine, is even shown in a supporting role (see middle image below). Were these images drawn to reflect what Schilling had observed firsthand in the Bernese wars? Was the inclusion of heavily armoured crossbowmen within groups of men at arms a common sight?  Is this how the French-originated 'lance' performed on the battlefield - as an integrated unit of all the mounted arms, rather than each type (man at arms, coustiller and crossbowman) being split up and fighting together dictated by the weapon they carried? Certainly there's a logic to maintaining cohesion on the field by retaining the 'lance's' composition and duties of service and support to the man arms in the fighting.

Berne Spiezer chronicle c 1485

Berne chronicle (volume 3) c 1480

In the woodcut of the battle of Dornach in 1499 there is more apparent evidence of crossbows supporting closely a cavalry charge made by Swiss against Imperialist forces.

Battle of Dornach. detail of woodcut, 1499 (British Library)

Also the 'Housebook Master' shows mounted troops both on the march and practising arms as an apparent combined group of lance and crossbow armed soldiers.

Master of the Housebook (detail) c1475

Tactically could such a fighting combination of lance and crossbow have worked? The main effectiveness of a lance is its initial impact and the impetus of a frontal assault by armoured men riding horses at a canter or gallop. In such an attack crossbowmen may not have been involved; it maybe doubtful if they could shoot from a second rank before contact was made. However should men at arms be involved in a follow-up melee, the inclusion of crossbowmen, shooting a relatively close range with armour-piercing bolts, may have been effective. It’s tempting to imagine from such illustrations, the use of mounted crossbowmen as almost a precursor to 16th century caricole tactics with pistols, although having a reduced impact by being dispersed among men at arms rather than employed en masse. Their use at such close quarters would also require the amount of full plate and armour in which Schilling consistently shows them.

What do these idle and incomplete thoughts mean for my wargames army? Well, I’m going to mix some crossbows in with my Burgundian coustillers, who’ll support the men at arms as a secondary row of mounted troops. It gives me a good excuse for varying the figures in the unit and painting some of the Perry Italian castings.  I’ll also have some reference points to defend myself when someone inevitably challenges me!

How I’ll deal with them in any rules may well be the subject of another posting….


  1. Well spotted. Interesting hypothesis. Perhaps influenced by Byzantine Thematic cavalry with the mix of lancers and horse archers?

  2. It seems possible, and the number of times they appear in drawings seems to me they might have performed as you say.

  3. I've been saying pretty much the same thing, to anyone who'll listen, for a while now. People are very much in the 18-19th Century mindset of specifically named troop types for fixed and specified roles.

    Medieval soldiers were very flexible and 'jack of all trades'; they performed whatever roles were required of them. When specialised 'experts' appeared, like the Stradiots, they were eagerly incorporated.

    There is no reason to suppose that mounted archers/crossbowmen didn't perform the same 'light cavalry' roles as the coustilier are assumed to have done. How well they did this is another matter, but no worse than mostly anyone else's did on the whole.

    Certainly by the 16th Century, the French 'Archer' cavalry had dropped any pretence at being just 'mounted infantry' and were operating, as you say, in support of the Gendarmes. This may of course have been a long standing practice.

  4. Very interesting post Simon !

    For my Kalmar Union War (late 15th cantery Sweden) point of view, it is accepted by Swedish historians that "Knektar" mounted crossbowmen fought in "close order" either by them selfs but often intermixed with "Svenner" Squires/ Light chock cavalry and or with the "Frälse" i.e Knights. Probably as 2nd/3rd rank to give more momentum to the charge of the cavalry. They was also used as scouts but as far as I could tell newer fought as Skirmish Mounted Crossbow, always recorded as fighting in close formation. I suppouse the support role was due to the lack of knights/chock cavalry here in Sweden and they used what ever cavalry they had available to beef ut the Chock cavalry...

    I think it will look realy good if you mix some crossbow men in the units, will be nice to see the stat line for them on the gaming table;)

    Best regards Michael

  5. Here is an example - for those who read french - of an arbalétrier (actually an "archer" of a french company of ordonnace with a crossbow) from the "Chroniques de Louis XII" (so taking place in Italy) : un « archer de la compagnie du seigneur de Saint-Prest, avec une arbalète bandée, pour plus droit assener quelqu’un de ces Allemands, lâcha la rêne de la bride de son cheval, et là, hasarda tant sa vie, sous l’assurance de la conduite de celui-ci, qu’entre ses ennemis soudainement l’emmena, lequel à coups de hallebardes fut sur le champ assommé ». This example doesn't imply that firing on horseback was an habit. During the wars of Italy, french archers fight rather on horseback with demi-lance and there are other examples of such practice during Louis XI wars (ie, archers fighting like coustilliers rather than dismounting to fire with longbow or crossbow). I didn't find any example of mounted crossbowmen fighting in close relation with men-at-arms, as it will be usual at the end of XVI century - mounted arquebusiers replacing arbalétriers).

  6. Great discussion, I love looking at the original illustrations. Some of the Talhoffer moves get pretty "action movie" in his fight book, I like the one of the backwards crossbow shot though. For the very end of the period there are also Paul Dolnsteins sketches, another artist who was also a soldier, he shows an armoured crossbowman firing from the saddle, I think its from around 1500?

    It is so hard to know how they fought, but they must have been useful as it does seem most armies were employing them. I take it you are going to use the Perry Italian figures for these?


  7. Thanks for all the feedback; it's reassuring to hear from you that I don't seem to be too far from a possible logical interpretation from viewing the contemporary illustrations.
    'Resumption of normal service' next - painted model figures. :)

  8. Thank-you for this. I am very impressed with your research. Keep up the good work
    Mick Farnworth (Mick in Switzerland)

  9. There's no image showing someone armed with lance and crossbow. It's common to see mounted archers with an additional lance, but not mounted crossbowmen.
    There are a number of modes for shooting from horseback. One is swarming at high speed, carried out by lightly armoured horse archers, who often had several horses as replacements. Heavily armoured units did advance at slow speed and release a shower of arrows.
    That might be a suitable tactic for mounted crossbowmen. Form a line, shot during slow movement from a close distance and run away on horseback as soon as the infantry chases after you. Infantry chasing after a mounted crossbowman is out of formation and vulnerable to charging mounted lancers. A charge of lancers has decreasing efficiency of follow on ranks. Arming them with powerful ranged weapons might increase their effectiveness.
    The mounted use of the powerful crossbow might be useful against light armoured riders. From the crusades we know of charges to chase away lightly armoured mounted archers. How much more effective would a mounted crossbowman be than a mounted lancer?
    Another issue striking me is 2 mounted crossbowmen per lancer in the introduction image. That's almost a mounted crossbowmen force with additional lancers, not the other way round. So did we have proto-"reiters" with crossbows in the Late Middle Ages? The Fechtbücher show them as equals of the lancers. Were the mounted crossbowmen the norm and the lancer a specialist for specific tasks to support the mounted crossbowmen?