Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 June 2021
This article offers a study of the lance and its evolution as a heavy cavalry weapon in the late medieval period. The development of the arrêt de cuirasse, a device upon which the heavy lance depended, dramatically increased the force of the strike, but considerably complicated the process of couching. The resultant loss of cohesion caused tactical difficulties, making the weapon both potent and problematic. Spanish and English men-at-arms often preferred the lighter, more versatile lancegay, which proved useful in the pursuit and for engaging those on foot. An analysis of the performance of heavy cavalry in several engagements suggests that smaller units of skilled men-at-arms were more successful than larger bodies of horsemen containing inexperienced individuals. The criteria necessary for an effective charge are examined, including the effects of weather and terrain, particularly in relation to the contest between the longbow and the mounted man-at-arms. Stakes appear to have been an unreliable anti-cavalry defence, and, in the right circumstances, could be penetrated, knocked over, or avoided in a well conducted charge. Small elite groups of experienced cavalry were able to exploit the considerable power of the lance while minimizing its disadvantages, eventually giving the French an edge over their less flexible, infantry-centered English opponents. The final French victory in the Hundred Years War is often attributed to artillery, but heavy cavalry played a significant role.
Throughout the fifteenth century the heavy war lance was dependent upon the arrêt de cuirasse, a metal hook which projected from the right side of the breast plate, a device considered to have revitalized heavy cavalry. The invention enabled the lance to deliver an impact of unprecedented force, but significantly complicated the process of couching the weapon and increased the difficulties faced by horsemen attempting to execute a successful charge. When cavalry was engaged in significant numbers, the necessity of using the device exacerbated the tendency towards fragmentation and disorder; by contrast, smaller units were more likely to maintain cohesion and couch effectively. While the English often preferred the more versatile light lance or lancegay, a weapon which complemented their tactical system, French nobility remained captivated by the heavier weapon, an obsession which sometimes compromised their performance. However, despite these problems, French cavalry harnessed the tremendous power of the lance to achieve a remarkable victory over a formidable English defense in the latter part of the Hundred Years War.