In 1066 AD the Normans (people who came from Normandy in Europe) conquered England and introduced feudalism in England. Feudalism was a system of contract where society was divided into four classes: royalty, barons (noblemen) and bishops, knights (a title or a rank) and lastly peasants. Merchants and artisans were placed just above the peasants.
From 1066 to about the 14th century, feudalism developed across Europe. There were no professional armies at that time like we have today. Every man who was called upon was expected to follow his king in battle. The king granted land to these knights. A knighthood was obtained either by birth into a noble family or through bravery in battle.
The king gave these knights the right to fight on horseback. The knights were thus loyal to both the king and the noblemen.
These knights of Europe displayed exceptional fighting skill with lance, sword or battle-axe and wore heavy armour to protect them. The armour also protected them from stones thrown by large catapults and arrows.
The knight was an important fighter and had to know two basic skills: how to fight and how to ride a horse. A knights’ armour consisted of heavy steel plates to cover his body, a heavy helmet and a shirt of mail (finely intertwined metal rings set very close to each other). The knight also wore gloves, leggings and shoes of mail or metal.
All this heavy weight could only be carried on a horse as the armour was too cumbersome for the knight to walk with. He actually needed another person called a squire (young men training to be a knight) and a page (a male servant) to guide him around as the helmet didn’t permit the knight to see very well.
The horses that the knights used were very large and heavy, similar to draught horses of today, but highly trained and far from clumsy. These battle horses, wore a suit of armour too!
A knight from his higher position on the horse, had an advantage over the foot soldier. So each knight, if he could afford it, kept several horses. He used a different horse for different occasions.
During a jousting tournament (where knights displayed their skill in combat by fighting each other) the knight rode a horse called a charger that was heavy and strong. In hand-to-hand combat he used a lighter horse called a courser.
When the knight was not fighting he used a horse called a palfrey, as did his lady and the squire.
The knights trained their horses to do many things. Each manoeuvre the horse did was called by a different name. For instance, the knight could cause his horse to sink on its hind legs – a position called a levade – and remain immobile while he used a sword.
From this position, the horse could rise and hop forward a step or two, a position called a courbette (from the French word meaning crow). It was also trained to stand on its hind legs and kick the enemy with its fore legs and this was called capriole.
It was a miracle, how the knight maintained his seating through all this, while his steel armour encumbered him. The saddle was so built with high front and back seating that the knight could only fall sideways.
However, if the knight did fall down, he could never get up and back on his horse without the help of another person!
To identify themselves to their friends and enemy, the knights and his horses displayed a coat of arms (family badge) either on the shield, which the knight carried to ward off blows, or on the horse’s tunic.
With the invention of gunpowder, the armour and knights disappeared to be replaced by light cavalry where soldiers carried muskets and pistols.