From chivalry to cavalry

In the 11th century, the French root of the word "chivalry" - chevalerie, meaning horse soldiery- designated a knight-at-arms on horseback. He was armed with a spear, a sword and an écu, a type of shield. The manner of fighting was based on the weapon. The lance was the knight's main weapon, since the sword was only used if the lance was broken or lost. As such, the lance dictated cavalry tactics. Accordingly, in every battle, the cavalry was divided into three ranks. Firstly, the knights flanked by their squires. Then the sergeants also armed with a lance and sword. Finally, the mounted coutiliers and other servants armed with a simple baton. This formation was arranged behind the infantry protected by the shields of the archers planted upright into the ground. The infantry opened its ranks to allow for the passage of the cavalry charging at a gallop then returned in disorder towards its own infantry in order to prepare a new charge. Based on the strength of the shock, this fighting ceased when the cavalry of one of the two camps reached exhaustion and had to give up under the protection of its infantry.

In Bouvines in 1214, the victory of Philip Augustus's army was gained through the combination of infantry and cavalry attacks. The infantry prevailed over horse soldiers in several battles: Kortrijk in 1302, where the French horse soldiers were destroyed by the Flemish infantry. At the Battle of Crécy (1346), the French horse soldiers were conquered by the first artillery and archers of King Edward III of England.

In the Middle Ages, combat tactics were characterised by the shock force of the cavalry with its lance charges.

The birth of the cavalry

In 1439, during the Hundred Years' War, cavalry units were created and named "compagnies d'ordonnance du Roi". This decision marked a turning point: instead of being summoned as it previously had been, the cavalry was henceforth a permanent body. Companies took their hierarchy and composition from horse soldiery: each company was commanded by a captain filling the role of the former knight banneret. Under his orders were a lieutenant, an ensign, a guidon and a maréchal des logis.

While the cavalry remained the most important weapon in the army, its power repeatedly proved ineffective against a disciplined and steadfast infantry using powerful direct-fire weapons.

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Jean-Pierre Béneytou, Histoire de la cavalerie française des origines à nos jours, Lavauzelle, 2010, 248p.