So Peter Jackson was right all along!

Cavalry charges.

Film directors always get them wrong. Their cavalry always charge too early. Riders always seem to be in control of their horses. And they always smash through the enemy’s defensive line.

My favourite charge of recent times comes from Return of the King, third film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. At first viewing, you’re carried away by the sheer scale of the battle, the magnificence of the CGI and the fact that just as you think the good guys have won, along comes a regiment of mounted Oliphants to stir things up again. It’s only with subsequent watchings that criticisms creep in. They did charge too early. They were under control. And they did smash through the enemy’s line of spear and pike men. Peter Jackson made the same mistakes as countless other directors and that spoilt the battle scenes for me, a stickler for accuracy as far as horsed cavalry are concerned.

Until…I looked a little closer.

You see, cavalry charges against massed infantry became a popular tactic in Europe during the Middle Ages, when ranks of heavily-armoured knights would charge en-masse, to soften up their opponents before their own infantry waded in to finish the job. How did they manage it? At that time, infantry would have been armed with pikes, and anyone who has studied the Napoleonic period knows that horses would rarely charge home against steady infantry formed in square, when a dense hedge of bayonets was presented at attacking cavalry. Horses aren’t that stupid – they would have stopped, or sheered off to one side, and usually did. So why the difference?

It was all down to armour. Knights’ chargers wore a Shaffron, an iron face-plate stretching from ears to nostrils to protect their heads. The picture of Henry VIII’s armour clearly shows that the eye-holes of this plate were either flared outwards or had shields attached to protect the eyes, designed to deflect blows from arrows or hand-held weapons. These acted like blinkers, but in reverse. It meant the horses could not see forward, but only to the side. They couldn’t see that they were galloping towards a bank of razor sharp iron-tipped stakes, but they could see the galloping horse on either side. And their herd instinct, together with the fact that they charged late and galloped more slowly than the lighter-weight animals of later centuries, helped keep them in formation.

So the knights on their big, heavy, mounts would smash into the enemy in a single, unbroken line. Not many infantry formations could resist such a weight of attack. Steady infantry might, if they were closely packed together, but take another look at Sauron’s orcs. They weren’t particularly steady. They weren’t standing shoulder to shoulder. And a lot of  Bernard Hill’s – sorry, King Theoden’s – cavalry horses wore Shaffrons.

So it seems, on this occasion,  director Peter Jackson did get it right. Hmph!

But they still charged much too early!

PS. I’ve now seen Shaffron spelt, and presumably pronounced, ‘Chamfron’. Which is right? Maybe both. When I find the answer I’ll post it here.  It’s interesting how words can change over time, but that’s a whole new post!


~ by cavalrytales on March 9, 2010.

10 Responses to “So Peter Jackson was right all along!”

  1. Ahhh I too get frutrated with such things that deal withRome. For sensational effects they blow the dicipline of the legions everytime. HBO Rome did a great attempt at getting it right. The legions did not fight man to man UNLESS the century or cohort was broken. That could happen but they worked to not allow it to happen. I understand why the reenactors get turned off of watching Hollywood interpretations of the legions.

    So we’re not alone. I’m gonna look closer at the face armor. Clever idea they used. Poor horses tho.


    • I’m learning all the time about this stuff. Never been much of a historian because I hated the political history stuff we did in school – didn’t realise what I’d been missing. I wouldn’t have known about the legions because I kind of ‘specialise’ in 19th century cavalry – it’s a bit too late in life to try to broaden my education that far!


  2. Such common themes…I too hated history and now I have my own library full of Roman book. Now if I could just remember half that stuff. Okay, here’s the deal…I’ll do rome and you do 19th century cavalry and if we have questions just bounce them back and forth. What amazes me is how much I find in later cavalries that originated with Rome. That’s what keep me going.


    • I’d be interested in the sort of tactics Roman cavalry used, if you could point me in the direction of a good book. For example, later on El Cid Campeador copied many of his attacks from Alexander and (apparently) Saladin when he fought the Moors in Spain and I’ve often wondered if Napoleon in particular based any of his manouvres on early cavalry tactics. He did tend to leave his horsemen exposed to artillery fire a fair bit – meybe he had so many he wasn’t quite sure what to do with them!


  3. Early Roman cavalry were essentially scouts and skirmishers, nipping away at infantry with bow and arrows and javelins. Equally, depending on the era.

    According to the ancient Greek historian Polybius, whose Histories (written ca. 140s BC) are the earliest substantial extant account of the Republic, Roman cavalry was originally unarmoured, wearing only a tunic and armed with a light spear and ox-hide shield which were of low quality and quickly deteriorated in action.

    Basically, the rich and noble were the cavalry and everyone else were infantry.

    If you are interested, look up Philip Sidnell. Sidnell argues that the record shows that Roman cavalry in Republican times were a strong force in which they bested higher reputed cavalry of the time. Examples include the Heraclea (280 BC), in where the Roman cavalry dismayed the enemy leader Pyrrhus by gaining the advantage in a bitterly contested melee against his Thessalian cavalry, then regarded as the finest in the world, and were only driven back when Pyrrhus deployed his elephants, which panicked Roman horses.

    The most notable Roman cavalry were the Sarmatians, tribesmen who were essentially the beginning of the European knight and predecessors to the Alans and Ossetians. These pre-Iranian peoples served in the Roman Empire’s waning years.

    Hope that helps?


    • That’s great.
      I was looking at Roman cavalry exactly because they were unarmoured. They just seemed to me the natural antecedents of more modern light dragoons; taking both scouting and attack/defence roles. And my particular interest was how much their tactics influenced later mounted troops.
      Thanks for the tips.



  4. No worries. In what region are you looking at specifically, Western European cavalry tactics, Central Europe (I have lots on Polish hussars and uhlans) or from East?


    • It’d be Western European – Napoleonic period. My interest isn’t really academic as such. Because I write about the British cavalry of that period, who were roundly criticised at virtually every opportunity by their own side, I’m always looking for ‘angles’ that might back up ‘extenuating circumstances’ or even provide a new slant on a particular action.

      Just as an example, I’ve used the Polish Chevaux-Legers action at Somosierra in my latest story. You’ll probably know there are four or five different ‘eye-witness’ accounts. I used the Polish version because French accounts were…well, pretty crap, really, but they seem to be the sources most often used by historians. And I’ve got a soft spot for the Poles, even if their cavalry didn’t actually charge German tanks in 1939. It’s the sort of stupidly brave thing they would have done – a bit like at Somosierra.


  5. You’re writing about Polish cavalry in Napoleonic times! *takes a deep breath, calms down and then bursts out* That’s so cool! I’m a hobby historian despite attempting to write science fiction, and recently realised I knew very little about the Polish lancers and legionnaires who fought for Napoleon in hopes of reclaiming their homeland.


  6. Don’t get too excited.

    To be fair, Somosierra and the Poles is a very small part of the book, which is really the continuing story of two British light dragoons. But I have a French character who appeared in my first story in a very minor role, and I needed to get him back into the action somehow. So it’s a plot device, really. And because my two main characters have to go from Lisbon in October to Sahagun in December with only a brief incarceration and a minor skirmish at Rueda, it’s handy to have a decent battle to break the monotony.

    At the end of the battle, French accounts say that Napoleon unpinned his own Legion d’Honneur and presented it to a badly wounded Polish officer – Niegolewski, I think – on the battlefield, but Polish versions say the award was presented several days later. That means I can have the Emperor present the medal to my character without completely contradicting the historical record. See what I mean about ‘angles’?


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