The Sunday Section: Snippets of ...Medieval Weapons - Lance

The lance was transformed into a mighty weapon by combining the humble but effective spear with the power of a charging horse, changing the already frightening cavalry charge into a more terrifying, formidable one.

Using the lance was more than a case of simply grasping it and charging towards the enemy.  Boys would start their training from the age of 7 when they would charge on foot towards a quintain, a shield and counterweight on opposing ends of a rotating pole.  

Once they had mastered this, they would progress onto the tilting cart, which was little more than the most basic of wooden horses, and practice hitting the target while being pushed or pulled forward on the cart; this simulated riding on horseback.  

Mastery of the tilting cart earned the future knight hours of, no doubt painful, practice on horseback to finally achieve the graceful choreography that bound lance, rider and horse into one.

A variety of positions were used … the Bayeux Tapestry shows knights holding spears out at arm’s length, or over the head, while others held the lance in the well-known ‘couched’ position, tucked under the arm.  The couched lance, bearing the full momentum of the knight charging on his horse, transmitted all that force into the opponent, either penetrating the armour or unhorsing him.

The lance was usually made of ash, not only because it was easily available, but also because of its resilient quality.  The lance started off as a simple staff tipped with a steel head.  In time a steel disc, called the vamplate, was nailed on in front of the hand; this developed to become more conical in shape, to better protect the hand.  A leather strip was sometimes nailed around the shaft at the end of the lance, past where the hand would be.  A basic form ofgraper, this was designed to be held against the armpit to prevent the lance sliding back on impact.

By the end of the 14th century, the lance rest had been developed, a metal flange attached to the right side of the breastplate just under the armpit.  The French term for ‘lance rest’ was arrêt de cuirassearrêt meaning ‘arrest’ – the purpose of the lance rest was not a device on which to rest the lance but to stop or arrest the rearward movement of the lance on impact.  Apart from providing a more secure seat for the lance when it was couched, it allowed the user to deliver a more solid blow with little chance of injuring himself.  Because of where it was attached to the breastplate, the impact of any blow was spread through the breastplate across the torso, instead of the blow being borne by the arm, from hand to shoulder.  The lance rest, together with the graper or ring of leather around the handle (behind the hand but before the lance rest) served to stabilise the lance in its couched position.  Usually bolted onto the side of the breastplate, the lance rest was, for the most part, hinged, allowing it to be folded upward so it would not hinder the sword arm once the sword was brought into play.

The Battle of Lewes, 14 May 1264, arguably the first full-scale battle fought with lances, demonstrated the destructive effect of the weapon.

Battle of Lewes

The reign of Henry III (1216-1272) was plagued by conflict.  The Barons were unhappy with his rule, the favouritism he showed to French nobles, his foreign policies, and, most especially, his refusal to negotiate policy with them.  In an effort to introduce a check on Henry, a scheme of constitutional reform, known as the Provisions of Oxford, was imposed on him.  Under the Provisions, a council would be appointed, under Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, to meet three times a year to discuss government policies, especially taxation and inheritance laws.  But, amid a climate of rising hostilities, Henry managed to have the Provisions annulled.

Henry III

Simon de Montfort

The Barons’ dissatisfaction with Henry culminated in the Second Barons War of 1263-1267, a civil war between the Barons and Royalist forces.  Open combat did not erupt straightaway; instead both sides traversed the countryside, taking castles loyal to their enemy.  Simon de Montfort’s army of disciplined knights and infantry were loyal to him … so long as they were granted land and status.

Lewes castle sits within a natural bowl in a well-protected position; believing himself safe, Henry rejected proposals for peace.  De Montfort was determined to draw the king into battle.  He moved his forces by night and took up a position overlooking the town.  Henry rode out of the town to meet de Montfort and his army.

But, in an audacious first move, Henry’s son, Prince Edward (later Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks, and still later, the Hammer of the Scots) charged up the hill with his knights.  With their lances, they shattered de Montfort’s infantry.  Instead of returning to his father’s side, Edward gave chase to the retreating infantry, pursuing them away from Lewes.  Henry was left with little support.  De Montfort seized his chance; his knights, lances couched, thundered downhill from high ground, smashing through Henry’s infantry.  Henry retreated to the town, surrendering the following day. 

Henry III and Prince Edward were held prisoner by de Montfort.  One year later, de Montfort, as head of government, summoned the first parliament to represent the towns of England.  Prince Edward eventually escaped and raised forces, returning to battle against de Montfort, killing him at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, and restoring his father to the throne.

                      Battle of Lewes Memorial

Some famous lances/spears of myth and literature ~

Gungnir, the spear of Odin … in the first part of the Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, which deals with the creation and destruction of the world according to Norse mythology, among other things, it is said that Odin will ride in front of the Einherjar (‘single/once fighters’, those that died in battle and were brought to Valhalla by the Valkyries) onto the battlefield at Ragnarök, wearing a gold helmet, a cloak of mail and carrying Gungnir, which he will use to attack the wolf Fenrir.

'Odin and Fenriswolf' - Emil Doepler

Cúchulainn’s spear, the Gáe Bulg (‘spear of mortal pain’ or ‘death spear’), was made from the bone of a sea monster, the Coinchenn.  He received the spear from the legendary Scottish warrior woman and master, Scáthach, after training with her.

'Cúchulainn riding his chariot into battle' - Joseph C Leyendecker

Apart from his two swords, Diarmuid f the Fianna also wielded two spears, Gáe Buide (‘Yellow Spear’) and Gáe Dearg (‘Red Spear’).  As Gáe Dearg caused wounds that could not be healed, he used it and the sword, Moralltach, for adventures where his life was in danger.  He used Gáe Buidhe and the sword, Beagalltach, for lesser adventures.

Apart from the sword, Excalibur, King Arthur also had a spear, Rhongomiant.

Hades, the ruler of the Underworld in Greek mythology, wields a bident, a two-pronged weapon, while Poseidon uses the more familiar trident.  It is said that he is able to create horses with his trident, and to cause earthquakes when it is struck on the ground.

                                             Hades

Poseidon

Tonbogiri, one of three legendary spears, was said to have been wielded by the daimyō, Tadakatsu Honda.  According to legend, the spear was so named after a dragonfly landed on its blade and was cut in two –  tonbo means ‘dragonfly’ in Japanese, and giri means ‘cutting’, hence the spear’s name, ‘Dragonfly Cutter’ or ‘Cutting Spear’.

                                                    Tadakatsu Honda

The trishula is wielded by Hindu gods and goddesses, namely hiva and urga.  The three points are said to represent various trinities- creation, maintenance and destruction; past, present and future … As Shiva’s weapon, the trishula is said to destroy the three worlds – the physical world, the world of the past, and the world of the mind; once destroyed, all that is left is a single plane of existence, bliss.

Shiva’s youngest son, Murugan, was given a vel (‘spear’), by his mother Parvathi, the embodiment of her shakti (‘power’), to vanquish an evil demon.  The vel is seen as the representation of spiritual insight.  The shakti of the vel signifies the power of righteousness over evil, representing release from ignorance into knowledge.