So the Battle of the Bastards was a pretty awesome episode of Game of Thrones and quite the terrific battle sequence, right? I mean that literally; the scene filled me with awe and terror, and immediately took a favored place among those depictions of medieval combat I hold to be most realistic and evocative. After watching the episode a second (and third) time, I began to scour the internet looking for the in-depth analysis that was sure to flow from such a richly detailed portrayal, especially one which so effectively communicated the geography of the battle-space. While I did find some great articles, chiefly these two and a follow-up series by Scott Manning, and this quick expositive video, I failed to find the deeply descriptive and comparative Keegan-esque analysis that I felt should flow from a well-constructed fictional battle of such celebrity.
I shall endeavor to produce that analysis below. A large part of my praise for this battle sequence stems from the way that the movements of each component of the opposing armies is communicated in a clear fashion, so I will seek to break the battle down into a series of "moves," examining each in turn. A major caveat regarding my explorations and comparisons should be given in that, except where specifically looking at psychological factors and their impact, I will try to distill the events surrounding the battle into a set of impartial facts grounded as closely as possible to historical reality. Thereby I will take some liberties in my interpretation of the storyline. For example, I will not consider whether or not Sansa was certain that the Knights of the Vale would intervene or spend time examining why she withheld this knowledge from Jon, but rather take it as fact that Sansa is the overall strategic commander of the Stark army, consisting of two separate forces, one of which she deploys under the command of Jon and the other operating under the command of Petyr Baelish. Similarly, in striving to 'normalize' the battle to as closely as possible to military reality, I will attempt to address the various fantasy elements and supposed anachronisms in a way that makes them more comparable to history but is not dismissive of their contribution.
Examining the battle from this perspective will provide a more satisfying analysis that doesn't end as simplistically as the cavalry riding in and saving the day. I will offer rather that Sansa Stark, as overall strategic commander on her side, won the day through keen use of the principle of exterior lines. Ramsay Bolton, focused almost entirely on the local battlefield and demonstrating some tactical proficiency in his envelopment of the Stark infantry, is ultimately undone by the greater strategic move of pinning the Bolton army in place with one force while maneuvering a second force onto the battlefield from an unexpected direction. Ramsay was relying on the geography of the North to protect his concentration of troops in the space around Winterfell from just such a concentration in time by an outside force, and he had also miscalculated the level to which the northern population had been subjugated by his raids and terror tactics. Striving to cast a harsh realistic light on the events of the battle as portrayed by the show illuminates the strategic follies leading to the Bolton defeat. This method can also help us achieve a more objective understanding of the tactical actions in the battle, such as Ramsay using his archers to fire into the cavalry melee. By divesting ourselves of our preconceived notions of Ramsay as 'evil' and the Starks as 'good,' we can instead examine some plausible reasons why a commander might actually be compelled to order his weaker cavalry to charge a seemingly superior foe, or his opponent to fire on both superior cavalry and their weaker enemy indiscriminately.
Below, I will first lay out my understanding of the composition of the armies, followed by a description of their disposition at the start of the battle. Next I will analyze the maneuvers of the battle, which I have broken into eight moves, or stages. A summary and conclusion will follow.
The Stark Army
Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell: overall strategic commander (nominal), and her commanders:
Jon Snow: overall operational and tactical commander (nominal), and his captains:
Ser Davos Seaworth, senior captain, with ~400 light infantry.
Tormund Giantsbane, senior captain, with ~1,700 heavy infantry.
Hornwood Captain, junior captain, with 200 heavy cavalry.
Mazin Captain, junior captain, with 143 heavy cavalry.
Lady Lyanna Mormont, junior captain, nominal command of 62 heavy cavalry.
Wun Wun War-De-Weg, heavy infantry force multiplier and siege-engine analogue
Petyr Baelish, Lord of the Eyrie, and his captain:
Yon Royce, Lord of Runestone, with ~1,000+ heavy cavalry.
Notes: The cavalry nominally under Jon appears to consist of the men from those houses still loyal to the Starks; they almost entirely wear mail hauberks/byrnies covering the entire arm and extending to the knees or below, and most supplement this with a coat-of-plates or brigandine of some kind, or a few smaller solid plates. Most of the loyalist cavalry have a mail coif, some additionally wear steel helmets, and a few have other bits of armor like gauntlets for the hands or grieves for the legs. Their horses have a few small plates and some mail armor. The infantry, both heavy and light, appear to consist entirely of wildings, although we do see a few other standard bearers and such. The wildlings seem to be relatively unarmored, wearing hides and leather, with the heavy infantry equipped with melee weapons like swords, axes, and some spears, while the light infantry have bows, arrows, as well as swords or daggers. The Vale cavalry under Baelish are lavishly equipped with mostly complete suits of enclosing solid steel plates over mail, and their horses are similarly well protected.
The Bolton Army
Lord Ramsay Bolton of The Dreadfort: overall commander, and his captains:
General of the Bolton Army, senior captain and nominal second-in-command.
Jon Umber, Lord of Last Hearth, senior captain, with 500 men-at-arms (heavy infantry).
Harald Karstark, Lord of Karhold, junior captain, with 2,000 heavy cavalry.
Captain of Bolton Pikes, junior captain, with 2,000 heavy infantry.
Captain of Bolton Archers, junior captain, with 500 light infantry.
Notes: The Bolton archers are wearing little or no armor, and wield longbows, each having a number of arrows. The mounted forces under Karstark are equipped similarly to their loyalist counterparts, with mail coats and various forms of supplemental torso protection. Most appear to have a mail coif, and some have steel helmets. Umber's dismounted men-at-arms are similarly equipped and most wield swords. The pike formation consists of a number of 'pavisiers' who are unarmed but carry very large shields and a greater number of footmen carrying long spears.
Prelude and Disposition of the Forces
The Stark army operated on exterior lines in two divisions: one in the north under Jon Snow and a second in the south under Lord Baelish. The northern division approached Winterfell from Castle Black, collecting some troops from loyalist houses in the western area of 'The North', and encamped nearby. After a parlay with the Bolton lords, the northern division prepares a defensive position within sight of Winterfell. On the morning of the battle, Jon's division deploys with archers grouped to the flanks and spread across his front, with his cavalry roughly in the middle, with wildling heavy infantry to either side and behind. The rear of their position is screened by woods and their flanks are protected by ditches.
The Bolton archers are deployed in a long line that is two ranks deep with periodic gaps at the front of the army, followed by blocks of cavalry ranked 2-4 deep, with three large formations of infantry at the rear of the army. The larger Bolton army appears to have a slightly wider frontage than the more constrained battlefield proper, and has erected three pairs of burning flayed men at set intervals from their position to act as range markers and as obstacles serving to further narrow the battlespace.
Lastly, the mounted Vale forces were noted to have been encamped at Moat Cailin a ways south of Winterfell some time prior to the battle. It can be assumed with relative safety that they had either moved to a much closer camp prior to the battle or were actively marching at the onset, and that their presence in the area remained either undetected, unreported, or disregarded by the Boltons.
The Maneuvers of The Battle of the Bastards
1. In-lieu of Ceremonial Single-Combat...
The action begins with Ramsay taunting Jon Snow with the hope of saving his younger brother Rickon. The young hostage is freed by his captor and set running towards his family's army, prompting Jon to charge toward the Bolton lines. Just beyond the furthest Bolton range marker, Rickon is fatally struck by an arrow fired personally by Ramsay, leaving Jon alone and exposed in the middle of the battlefield.
|The Battle of Clontarf, Dublin City Hall Mural, 1914|
This makes for great dramatic tension, but has been described as not being terribly 'realistic', in that there is no reliable historical analogue of a commander charging out alone in an attempt to save a captive relative who is on the field. However, some ancient and medieval battles were known to have featured a colorful prelude of sorts taking place in the no-man's-land between armies prior to the opening of the battle proper. In fact, the notion of a ritual combat between opposing champions as a means to decide a contested issue without a mass battle, as proposed by Jon Snow during the parlay, has its roots in the very beginnings of human conflict .
The Battle of Clontarf (1014), popularized as the victory of native Irish over Viking invaders near Dublin, features a curious historical analogue to Ramsay's baiting of Jon Snow. The account of the battle given in the Cogadh Gaedal re Gallaib has the main struggle preceded by a single combat between Domnall mac Eiman, a Scottish ally of the Irish king Brian Boru, and Plait, the "bravest knight of all the foreigners." Plait is said to have boasted the night before the battle that no man in Ireland could best him in a fight, with Domnall responding that he would take the field directly opposite Plait and the foreign vanguard. The next morning, while waiting in their opposing battalions for the rest of the armies to form, Plait taunted the Scots and Irish by leaving his own formation to march up and down the middle of the field shouting "where is Domnall?" This prompted the Scottish captain to leave his own formation to meet Plait in no-man's-land, whereupon they fought a single combat that found both dead "with the sword of each through the heart of the other, and the hair of each in the clenched hand of the other" .
Unlike the opening events of the Battle of the Bastards, this instance of pre-battle drama had little discernible result on the outcome of the main combat. It is worth noting that Domnall can be considered to have been an important captain of some standing in the Irish army, as an earlier passage of the Codagh Gaedal re Gallaib details him being sent to order the king's son Murchadh not to overextend the Irish battle line, implying that he had the trust of his king to enact orders, even over a royal commander . His death probably had only a localized impact on the battle, that of the soldiers of his own battalion seeing their commander fall. Still, this pre-battle duel between Plait and Domnall gives us a historical example of a commander being lured out of their chosen position, alone and into no-man's-land prior to the commencement of the main battle, by means of psychological pressure applied by their opponent.
The conclusion of the Siege of Orleans in 1429 yields a supposed instance of a single figure from one side interceding between armies to decisively route the opposing belligerent, averting a pitched battle and raising the siege, but this is a popular misconception. Although "no single military engagement in the Hundred Years War has had more written about it than the siege of Orleans," a number of discrepancies exist to help feed persisting misconception, for this battle "had the participation of The Maid, Joan of Arc" . I feel that Joan of Arc is especially opportune for comparison to the fictional world of Game of Thrones as she is perhaps the most mythologized personage of her era. One broad parallel is Jon Snow's insistence that the competing factions of Westeros must unite to resist the invading White Walkers, which mirrors Joan's espoused belief that "loyal Christians should" abandon their internecine conflicts and "pardon one another fully" to "go and wage [war] on the Saracens" . We'll examine more of these parallels in the later sections below, but it is the final day of that pivotal siege that is pertinent to this stage of Battle of the Bastards. The Journal du siege d'Orleans relates the following:
"Sunday 8 May 1429, The English dismantled their boulevards (earthen field fortifications often built to strengthen existing structures)...and leaving their siege they ordered themselves for battle. Because of this, the Maid, [the French captains], and many other brave soldiers and citizens sallied out of Orleans in great strength and lined themselves before [the English] in an ordered formation. And in such position they were very close one to the other for a space of an hour without touching each other. For this the French suffered great anger in obeying the will of the Maid, who had commanded them and forbade them from the beginning that, for the love and honor of this holy Sunday, that they not begin the battle nor attack the English. . . The hour passed, and the English turned and marched off well in good formation and order to Meung-Sur-Loire" .
A popular legend, perpetuated in one instance by Luc Besson's film The Messenger, is that Joan rode out alone between the two armies and that this display of courage or her exhortations induced the English to quit the field. This fanciful interpretation of the standoff outside Orleans has likely been given sustained animus by a single reference in a parliamentary register, the recipient of perhaps unwarranted attention due to the inclusion in its margins of the only contemporary portrait of Joan of Arc. Clement de Fauquembergue notes in the register: "On Tuesday, the tenth day of May, it was reported and publicly said in Paris that on the previous Sunday, the men of [France] in great number, after many skirmishes continually undertaken by force of arms, entered the boulevard that...English men-at-arms held...And on that day, the other [English]...raised their siege in order to go to the aid of [their] companions and to combat the enemy, who had in their companies a maid all alone holding a banner between the two enemy forces, so it is said" [7 - emphasis added].
Witnesses from Orleans clarify that while the two armies faced off, Joan had priests lead the French army in two masses, which were heard with "with great devotion" . Interpretations of a mounted Joan brandishing her large battle standard on May 8th are probably allowed undue historical creedence by some, stemming from the fact that sources mostly use the single word "estendart," meaning ensign, to describe three differently shaped and distinctly decorated banners used by Joan. This generates confusion as to which of the three (pennon, banner, or standard) is being referenced in the various witness accounts of Joan, further exacerbated by some witnesses themselves mixing up the similar but individual iconography on each. The one brought before the French army to hear mass as they stood fast before the immobile English outside of Orleans was a rectangular banner that was not used by Joan in battle, but instead for morning and evening prayer gatherings . It becomes apparent that Clement de Fauquembergue's 'maid all alone holding a banner between the two enemy forces' was most likely a reference to Joan's prayer banner being brought to the middle of the French army. This makes apparent how easily portrayals of recorded events can become embellished and romanticized even while claiming fidelity to history. Likewise, Jon simply charging at the head of his own army could easily become exaggerated into Jon charging alone at the enemy, if Game of Thrones were an actual historical event.
2. Bolton archers open fire, Stark cavalry and infantry advance
Having successfully upset the Stark battle plan, with Jon Snow lured out alone from his prepared defensive position, Ramsay orders his archers to open fire on the exposed enemy commander. Responding to the renewed charge of their leader, Ser Davos orders the advance of the Stark cavalry and Tormund follows suit at the head of the wildling infantry.
|Charge at Falkirk, British Battles on Land and Sea, 1873|
There has been a lot of criticism amongst viewers of the Battle of the Bastards, directed at Jon Snow for his reckless solo charge, and also towards his captains for abandoning their chosen position to advance in support of their commander. The dialogue between characters and the plot of the television series preceding the battle certainly leads watchers to take this stance as well, right up to Tormund muttering "Don't..." as he wills Jon not to continue alone against the Bolton army after failing to save Rickon. Just how large of a misstep is this early commitment by the Stark captains of the majority of their outnumbered force?
An appreciation for the capabilities of the four basic weapon systems as described in Archer Jones' The Art of War in the Western World can help us understand, in a general fashion, why this decision is not necessarily one that sets the Stark force under Jon on an inevitable trajectory toward defeat. Throughout his work, Jones' makes frequent mention to the almost invariable primacy of defense over offense. This refers to the usual superiority of troops in a prepared defensive position receiving an attack over those making the attack. Both the Starks and the Boltons recognize the importance of preparing their positions, with the Starks digging trenches to protect their flanks and the Boltons erecting their flayed-men range markers. Further, certain troops are more suited, through their equipment and methods, to attack other kinds of troops or to resist attacks by certain types of soldiers. Jones condenses the relationships between the four basic weapon systems of the medieval age into a handy graphic, which I've expediently reproduced below, wherein an "A" along an arrow means the ability to successfully press the attack and a "D" stands for the ability to defend or successfully repulse an attack.
HEAVY INFANTRY--------D----------->HEAVY CAVALRY
^ < \ / ^
| \ / |
| \ / |
A A A
| / \ |
| / \ |
| < / \ |
LIGHT INFANTRY---------D----------->LIGHT CAVALRY
For example, we can see that light infantry (generally meaning foot archers of some kind) are able to successfully attack the slower heavy infantry; the heavy infantry in turn are able to successfully defend against heavy cavalry, who can themselves reliably attack light infantry. Note that the fourth weapon system of "light cavalry," ostensibly horse-mounted archers, was absent from the medieval battlefields of western Europe (and the Battle of the Bastards); archers were mounted to increase their strategic mobility but they always dismounted to fight. It should be specified that the ability to successfully attack or defend as shown in the diagram does not mean "wins all fights" against the weapon system indicated; "attack" can be taken to mean the ability to force contact on the opponent that causes damage, while "defend" should be interpreted as the ability to withstand contact by mitigation of damage or repelling the attackers. In other words, while the archers can cause damage to heavy infantry at will by firing arrows from a distance that the heavy infantry are unlikely to close, the archers are not intrinsically superior to the heavy infantry. Likewise, the ability of tightly formed and well-disciplined heavy infantry to resist attacks by heavy cavalry does not mean that mounted soldiers delivering an unsuccessful charge against heavy infantry are automatically beaten; rather a formation of foot soldiers standing fast behind a shieldwall will resist the attacks of a cavalry charge but will themselves be able to deal only limited damage to the mounted attackers. Further, Jones' diagram assumes flat, open terrain. Heavy infantry, limited to a static defense against cavalry and unable to withstand sustained bombardment via archery, would be more capable of both defense and probably attack against all weapon systems if situated atop a steep wooded slope. Likewise, the usually speedy cavalry would encounter difficulty trying to attack up a densely forested hillside . Medieval battles generally required mutual consent by the opposing armies; commanders might try to seek combat on ground that either favored them or disfavored their opponent, but the enemy could usually just deny battle by moving their army away if the conditions seemed unfavorable. Many clashes were therefore fought on relatively neutral terrain that gave neither contestant a distinct advantage, yielding numerous examples throughout history that conform to Jones' framework for the interaction of basic weapon systems.
The Battle of Falkirk (erroneously portrayed in the film Braveheart) gives a ready example of the relationship between light infantry, heavy infantry, and cavalry. This battle saw the Scots under Wallace arrayed in three or four large 'schiltrons', large but compact circular formations of spearmen (heavy infantry), with smaller groups of light infantry (archers) placed between them. English knights (heavy cavalry) initiated a charge against each of the Scottish flanks; the Scots' light infantry were promptly routed by the swift shock action of the knights, who in turn could not penetrate the dense schiltron formations of heavy infantry, all in keeping with the diagram. The heavy infantry successfully fought off their mounted attackers by virtue of their long spears and tight formation, but lacked the articulation to maneuver that formation, and therefore could not strike back at the enemy cavalry nor prevent them from destroying the Scottish archers. The English knights, having put the opposing light infantry to flight and with the foot soldiers in the schiltrons unable to pursue, were free to disengage, and probably would have continued to initiate further ineffective charges against the Scots infantry if not restrained. The English King Edward arrived on the field, forbidding further charges and instead directing his own archers to fire on the seemingly indomitable hedgehogs of spearmen. The English light infantry demonstrated their ability to successfully attack and inflict damage on the Scottish heavy infantry, focusing their fire to create gaps in the schiltrons which the English cavalry was finally able to penetrate, resulting in an English victory.
Falkirk cleanly illustrates that "light infantry, though at the mercy of heavy cavalry, could stand off and seriously hurt heavy infantry" [11 - emphasis added]. Viewers who criticize the advance of the Stark cavalry as a suicidal charge dooming them to failure would do well to absorb this lesson of the employment of heavy cavalry and their dire threat to foot archers. Horses, even when weighed down with armored riders and protective barding, are simply faster than humans, and archers caught in the open would not be able to escape pursuing cavalry. The nature of this relationship is demonstrated in this episode where, despite hundreds of trained archers firing on one target at a known and marked distance, it takes multiple volleys to bring down Jon Snow's single charging horse. The idea of a mass of missiles fired by infantry utterly defeating a cavalry charge, while having historical precedent in the late middle ages, is generally more of a transitional or early modern occurrence stemming from the growing adoption and increased effectiveness of gunpowder firearms. The English longbowmen that famously decimated the advancing French knights at Agincourt faced a largely dismounted force; only the first of three attacks made against the English position was a cavalry charge, and it failed not due to any inherent superiority of archers over cavalry, but because of "the small number of men who took part, probably only 150 on each flank, and their slow advance because of the mud" . So, although some cavalry would surely be lost in a charge against light infantry, the havoc inflicted by even a few armored horsemen achieving contact with exposed archers should not be underestimated.
With this understanding in mind, and observing that at the time of the Stark cavalry charge the Boltons had their archers engaged at the front of their army, Ser Davos' order to advance can perhaps be seen as a tactically sound attempt to exploit the developing circumstances, rather than a hopeless act of desperation performed as a mechanical response brought on by dogmatic slavery to honor. At the moment they commit to their charge, the Hornwoods, Mazins, and Mormonts loyal to House Stark are riding towards the exposed Bolton light infantry, whose supporting heavy infantry (the only weapon system able to reliably defend against heavy cavalry) are not in a defensive position and are actually separated from the archers by ranks of Bolton cavalry. An attempt to redeploy the Bolton heavy infantry to receive the Stark charge would probably result in confusion, given the lack of articulation present in even the most disciplined medieval armies, leaving open the very real possibility of the Stark cavalry completing their charge without taking fire from the archers and without meeting a determined resistance from formed heavy infantry. The Stark cavalry can advance quite rapidly over the open ground, and will devastate the Bolton archers if they are able to make contact. With his infantry ill-disposed to receive the oncoming attack, Ramsay has no viable choice other than to deploy his own horsemen because "cavalry enjoyed few of infantry's advantages on the defensive, [and] for the heavy cavalry defense was a distinct liability...on the defense [they] had to retreat or charge" .
3. Karstark counter-charge
Having further isolated Jon Snow by killing his horse, Bolton then orders a cavalry attack by Karstark. The Lord of Karhold and his numerically superior cavalry collide with the Stark loyalist cavalry, breaking the momentum of both forces and resulting in a confused melee.
|Battle of the Bouvines, Les Grandes chroniques de France, c. 1350|
The image of the armored warrior on horseback making the decisive charge, as ingrained in both the modern popular conception of the knight and the contemporary medieval ideologies variously identified as feudalism and chivalry, is somewhat distorted and overly glamorized. Much of the power and prestige of the armored horseman lay not in their role on the battlefield but instead in their ability to patrol the expanses of territory under their charge and to quickly sally out in smaller groups from fortified towns and castles to meet the threat of raiders over a large area and administer to local affairs . Grouped in larger numbers only for short campaigns, due to the large expense of maintaining horses in the field and the nature of the feudal obligation system, medieval heavy cavalry's main power on the battlefield was largely psychological. The main tactic of the heavy cavalry, charging headlong into melee combat with the enemy, "may have been less to come into contact with the enemy than to cause them to flee in disorder" . With this in mind, we can see the cavalry charge of the Stark loyalists ordered by Ser Davos to be a competent tactical countermove to Ramsay's battle array and early commitment of his archers, one that actually takes back the initiative and restricts the viable choices available to the Bolton army. The Bolton archers are at the very front of their army and vulnerable; if the Stark cavalry can reach them they will be rapidly cut down, if they break and run before receiving the charge they'll disorder the Bolton ranks behind them. The Bolton cavalry are just behind the archers, and being that they are more maneuverable, it makes sense that Ramsay would order his cavalry to counter-charge rather than trying to re-form his entire army with several hundred horsemen bearing down on his exposed archers.
Harald Karstark leads the Bolton countercharge, setting the stage for all that lovely cinematography everyone's talked about, and resulting in the violent impact of the two bodies of cavalry. Now, why didn't the numerically superior Bolton cavalry under Karstark easily defeat the Stark cavalry and go on to ride down the wildling infantry, a fear espoused by Tormund at the Starks' pre-battle council? This expectation stems from the previously mentioned misconceptions about the capabilities of medieval heavy cavalry. The charge of armored knights was far from an automatic winning move, and as a battlefield tactic relied more heavily on psychology and favorable conditions than actual application of violence. Besides their ability to close with and disperse enemy light infantry, cavalry's other main role was one of mopping-up disorganized or fleeing enemies, as at Falkirk where the English cavalry were able to overcome the Scottish heavy infantry formations only after the latter had been severely disrupted by fire from archers. Tormund's own given example of mounted knights riding through the wildlings "like piss through snow" beyond The Wall is illustrative of cavalry's ability to exploit a favorable situation through superior mobility, but that victory over infantry saw the wildlings caught unaware and unformed between two enemy forces, circumstances that had a greater impact on the outcome than any imbalance in the inherent capabilities of cavalry over infantry. By merit of their greater mobility compared to infantry, cavalry were often used to respond to threats as needed, frequently leading to cavalry-against-cavalry actions. However these actions were rarely the deciding factor of a battle, as even if one side managed to rout the other, disciplined cavalry could be quick to re-form, and owing to their speed it was difficult to ever completely annihilate a unit of horsemen unless they could be trapped against a natural obstacle such as a river. Extended pursuit of fleeing or unengaged enemy horsemen reduced the overall effectiveness of attacking cavalry, as their formation became more loosely spread and difficult to control, reducing their vaunted shock-value which relied on a tightly packed formation delivering a charge in unison. Heavy cavalry had come to dominate European tactical thinking since the rise of Charlemagne in 768, and "although the number of horsemen in any army never exceeded the number of infantry, it was the military dominance of the cavalry that formed the tactical, strategic, and chivalric policies of the period," though this dominance was largely a psychological one borne from "the strength of their armor... and an accumulation of their victories," and because "to stand against them took great courage and only a few infantry soldiers of the High Middle Ages seemed to have possessed it" .
If we stop considering Karstark's cavalry charge as a component of an evil master plan by Ramsay, and instead look impartially with our fuller understanding of the capabilities of medieval weapons systems, we can see instead a response forced by the loyalist charge and the Bolton deployment. It is a move Ramsay makes with confidence, as his gloating at the parlay makes it clear that he holds the medieval belief in the intrinsic superiority of heavy cavalry, although this confidence is misplaced as much of that superiority depends on the frightened submission of his opponents. The Stark loyalists, in declining to flee before the larger body of charging cavalry, effectively negate the latter's primary advantage - their ability to induce an enemy to flee in panic. With the psychological "shock" of their charge having failed, the Bolton cavalry's remaining advantage - their ability to deliver the physical violence of a connecting close-order charge - is one that is both greatly exaggerated in the popular mind and diminished when facing other cavalry. Horses will naturally try to avoid one another as bodies of opposing cavalry come together, and as John Keegan succinctly states, "the idea that armoured knights, riding knee to knee with couched lances in dense waves of successive ranks, could have charged home against each other without instantaneous catastrophe to both sides at the moment of impact defies belief" .
When the impetus of the charge was spent against a foe more readily able to absorb the blow and also less likely to be routed by it, as when opposing bodies of well-trained and armored 'noble' cavalry came into mutual contact, a disorganized melee often resulted as riders from both sides crossed into the ranks of their opponents. A probable eyewitness account from the Battle of the Bouvines in 1214, taken from Relatio Marchianensis de Pugna Bouvinis, describes such an action: "The first French echelon attacked the Flemings with virility, breaking their echelons by nobly cutting across them, and penetrating their army through all impetuous and tenacious movement" . But this cavalry struggle at Bouvines was just one part of the action, on the flank of the overall battle, and though described colorfully it took not one charge but a full hour for the French to defeat the Flemish cavalry. The main impact of this successful opening cavalry action on the greater battle was a psychological one on the supporting Flemish infantry, who "seeing this...turned their flanks and quickly took to flight"; this in turn allowed the supporting French infantry on that flank to reinforce the center of the battle, where "german foot soldiers (allies of the Flemings) who had gone on ahead suddenly reached the [French] king and, with lances and iron hooks, brought him to the ground" . The reinforcements from the flank rallied around the French king Phillip Augustus, and the indecisive melee with the Germans in the center of the battle continued. After establishing early supremacy over their Flemish counterparts, the victorious French knights were able to re-form and act as a reserve, waiting for an opportune lull in the ongoing center struggle to support a final push that won the day. Similarly the English horsemen at Falkirk demonstrated that disciplined cavalry could re-form quickly after both successful and unsuccessful charges on infantry; when dispersing the archers, the English cavalry did not overly pursue but instead re-formed to charge the Scottish infantry; when they were rebuffed by the Scottish spears, the horsemen simply disengaged. But when cavalry met cavalry at speed and neither broke off, the formations tended to intermingle and break down as at Bouvines, rather than decisively colliding at high velocity. The resulting intermix of enemy forces made it difficult for either side to disentangle themselves from the other, placing increased emphasis on individual skill and low-level leadership, so that "a good leader most often led his horsed troops to victory, a bad leader often to defeat" .
So, even though they severely outnumber their opponents, the Bolton cavalry do not deliver the crushing blow many would mistakenly expect them to. Immediately following the initial contact of the opposing mounted groups, both sides still have most of their numerical strength intact (thereby meaning that the Bolton cavalry can still be considered to substantially outnumber the Stark loyalists), but, by forcing and then absorbing Karstark's charge, the ostensibly weaker Stark cavalry has managed to deny the superior Bolton horsemen their primary role of instigating retreat via fear. Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith describe this primary role of heavy cavalry in the excellent Medieval Weapons: An Illustrated History of Their Impact:
"Intimidation of poorer, less well-armored infantry and cavalry by wealthy, expensively clad cavalry was the key here. Should even part of the enemy line flee at the prospect of facing these heavy horsemen, the whole of the force would be severely weakened. The cavalry would then be able to ride through the gaps left in their opponent's line, meeting little effective opposition. Subsequent charges would eventually cause the whole of the enemy army to flee, and victory would be won with very few casualties suffered" .
Ramsay loses the chance for this kind of easy victory through intimidation as the two cavalry forces become joined together into a single disordered mass; there are no gaps left by intimidated troops for Karstark's riders to exploit, merely a bloody mix of friend and foe. Though the Bolton cavalry almost certainly retains local battlefield superiority at this point, they are unable to disengage or re-form and must remain stuck in place fighting the equally indisposed Stark cavalry as the wildling infantry under Tormund continue to advance.
4. Bolton archers' fire into the beaten zone
With neither side's cavalry charge proving decisive and the wildling infantry rapidly closing, the Bolton archers fire multiple volleys into the melee, creating a beaten zone at the edge of the prepared range markers.
|Battle of Crecy, Froissart's Chronicles, c. 1400|
Much has been made of Ramsay's continued orders to his archers to fire into the cavalry melee; this has been offered up as an emerging modern trope of using depictions of friendly-fire-by-archers to indicate that a medieval antagonist is "evil", as in Braveheart's inaccurate portrayal of Edward I at Falkirk. As I have argued, if we ignore the major signposts hung by the writers and producers of Game of Thrones identifying Ramsay as "evil" and leading us to believe his orders during the Battle of the Bastards are part of a delicate master plan, we can see the events of the battle unfold through a more realistic lens. The frequently-mentioned numerical superiority of the Bolton cavalry, deployed en-masse, fails to deliver the decisive routing of Stark forces that Ramsay had hoped for. As previously detailed, whether part of a preconceived plan for the battle or not, Ramsay had no choice but to deploy his cavalry when he did or the Stark cavalry would have destroyed his archers and probably upset his battle line prior to a wildling infantry attack. Ramsay's own cavalry counter-attack is robbed of its "shock value" by the Stark loyalists' refusal to retreat, and when the two cavalry forces do meet, the result is not decisive for either side. By failing to route the Stark loyalists with their charge, the Bolton cavalry who intervened to protect their exposed archers find themselves out of formation, fighting enemy horsemen, and vulnerable to an attack by the advancing wildling infantry. Viewed from this angle, we can see Ramsay's order to his archers as a vicious, desperate, and ultimately successful attempt to seize back the initiative he lost when the charging Stark cavalry forced him to commit his own horsemen.
I would argue that we can infer via Ramsay's deployment, with prepared range markers on the field and his archers at the front (unsupported by heavy infantry), that he completely discounted the relatively small contingent of loyalist cavalry as a threat and planned to use his archers to whittle down the infantry-dominated force under Jon Snow before sending out his large cavalry force to route the disrupted wildlings. This simple but classic battle plan echoes Edward I's at Falkirk and obeys Jones' capability diagram, with archers exercising their ability to attack formed infantry and cavalry being used to cause and exploit a retreat. I would further argue that Ramsay, as a master manipulator who likely absorbed the lessons of his father's conduct in the War of the Five Kings, has based his entire battle plan around the idea of intimidating the Starks into a retreat with the minimum of effort on the part of his forces. He first attempts this through his 'game' with Rickon, which succeeds in drawing the local Stark commander out of formation, but does not break the morale of the Stark army. When the young hostage is killed and their commander is left alone on the field and facing almost certain death, the Stark army still does not break but rather commences an attack. The Bolton archers take down Jon's horse, but seeing their commander fall under a hail of arrows is not enough to deter the loyalists, who press on in their attack. His attempts to bully the Stark army into submission by cutting off its leadership having failed, Ramsay orders a cavalry charge that is also unable to send the loyal northerners and free folk into retreat. I would argue that at this point, Ramsay's plan is not coming to fruition, his plan is failing due to underestimating the resolve of his opponents and overconfidence in his cavalry's ability to clear the field via intimidation. Ramsay orders his archers to fire on the melee in a further attempt to incite panic and induce the Stark forces to flee, knowing that the wildling infantry will soon reach Karstark's floundering cavalry force.
Recall that we are not shown Ramsay's view of the battlefield during this stage, one which would probably reveal the wildling vanguard coming into contact with the edges of the cavalry melee well before we see Tormund and Jon reunited, and remember that the most reliably effective employment of archers is in disrupting enemy infantry formations. Ramsay continues to have his archers fire on the melee perhaps because he sees it as his best option, and less because he has premeditated the slaughter of much of his own force. Had the Bolton archers not fired on their own men, there is a distinct possibility that Karstark and his cavalry would be overrun anyway by Tormund's charging infantry. The rain of arrows serves to disrupt the impetus of the overall Stark advance, preventing the mass of wildlings from surging forward and overcoming the disorganized cavalry to reach the Bolton lines.
There is an instance from the Battle of Crecy of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen being out-shot by English longbowmen, whereupon "the French chivalry, despising [their allies] the Genoese, rode them down in their enthusiasm to get at the [English]" . When a commenter pointed this out to history blogger Scott Manning, the latter replied with:
"I considered the incident at Crécy, but I feel it was more of a summary execution, which occurs throughout history. What we saw in Battle of the Bastards is unlike anything medieval warfare. Given the examples from Braveheart and now Game of Thrones, there is a modern trope where a villain fires arrows indiscriminately into an active battle. It’s not a summary execution; it’s somehow a tactic coupled with apathy toward one’s own troops. Yes, the French charged their Genoese allies at Crécy, but it was when the Genoese were retreating and it was in response to their poor performance in battle" .
I believe that the depiction in Battle of the Bastards is closer to the Genoese at Crecy than Manning has allowed; the Bolton cavalry failed its primary mission of inducing a rout via charge and also failed to regroup and remain functional as a purposeful weapon system, becoming instead bogged down in an indecisive melee that is continually reinforced by the oncoming waves of Stark infantry. Karstark and his cavalry were already beaten and, like the Genoese, suffered gravely at the hands of their own allies for their failure.
5. Stark forces consolidate; Bolton infantry advance
As body piles upon body, forming the corpse wall, and the wilding infantry help complete the destruction of the Bolton cavalry, the Bolton archers retire to make way for a coordinated infantry attack by Bolton's pikemen and Umber's dismounted men-at-arms. Davos and his archers, encountering no resistance and moving more swiftly than the much larger mass of wilding infantry preceding them, arrive and consolidate with the remaining Stark loyalists as the Boltons' pikemen and men-at-arms begin to sweep around their flanks.
|The Battle of Agincourt, Vigiles de Charles VII, c. 1470|
When the archers under Ser Davos advance to join the rest of the disorganized Stark force, they are essentially converting from light (missile) to heavy (melee) infantry, for the moment abandoning their intended role of ranged support. The battle of Agincourt in 1415 is characterized by the high composition of light infantry on the English side and the novel tactics used by their commander Henry V to defeat a much larger and more expensively equipped French force, providing a moderately analogous instance of archers taking up hand weapons to supplement their beleaguered comrades. The English king had "ordered that every archer, throughout the army, was to prepare for himself a stake...six feet long...and sharpened at both ends" and that "all the archers were to drive their stakes in front of them in a line and some behind them and in between the positions. . . so that the [French] cavalry, when their charge had brought them close and in sight of the stakes, would either withdraw in great fear or, reckless of their own safety, run the risk of having both horses and riders impaled" . This prepared defensive position substituted for the lack of additional heavy infantry in the English army and allowed their archers to resist the charge of heavy cavalry so that, when the first wave of mounted French attacked, "those brave enough to charge onto the stakes had their horses impaled and were even catapulted out of the saddle to lie defenseless at the archers' feet. . . only in a section of the field where the ground was so soft that the stakes fell down did they make any impact" . The original Stark battle plan had hoped for such an outcome also, but with the majority of their forces committed Davos is forced to abandon his prepared position, opting to have his archers contribute their manpower to the melee. At Agincourt, the English archers also joined in the close-quarters fighting:
"By the time the cavalry attack failed, the first line of French dismounted [knights] had approached the English line, hindered by their armor, the mud, and the hail of arrows. Though the longbowmen occupied part of the English line, the French knights concentrated their assault upon their social equals-and ransom prospects-the English dismounted [knights]. But King Henry ordered his muscular and agile archers into the fight, who 'quitted their stakes, threw their bows and arrows on the ground and seizing their swords, axes, and other weapons, sallied out upon' the armored Frenchmen, and, entering into breaks in their lines 'killed and disabled the French" .
The longbowmen, though intended to perform at range as light infantry, "proved nimble, deadly opponents in the boggy ground, even swinging the leaden mallets that they had used for driving the stakes in to the ground," performing admirably as improvised heavy infantry. The actions of the English archers at Agincourt illuminates why the tactical employment of troops could have greater influences on their capabilities as a weapon system than their equipment; Ser Davos likewise adapts to circumstances that find his archers without a suitable ranged target by ordering them to reinforce their heavy infantry comrades.
Davos and the archers quickly regroup with the rest of the Stark troops clustered in the center of the battlefield. But as Tormund, Wun Wun, and the rest of the wildling infantry catch up to Jon at the front of the fighting, their advance falters, blocked by the wall of corpses. This hesitation to advance in favor of seeking shelter in the company of friendlies allows the Boltons a window of opportunity within which to launch an enveloping attack along both flanks of the stalled loyalists. If one allows the 'corpse wall' to become a visual metaphor for the stalling and disruptive effect of Ramsay’s sustained archery bombardment, we can once again appreciate the cinematic battle from a more realistic perspective. One can readily envision quixotic historians embellishing accounts of casualties into a tale of bodies piled higher than a man. Supposed exaggeration aside, archery could indeed have a stymying effect, as "undrilled, unarticulated infantry (like the Wildlings), when formed shield to shield (to offer greater protection against the incoming volleys), could only defend" . Even the vaunted Swiss Pikemen, whose offensive infantry tactics will be explored in the next section below, saw their dominance wane in part because their "solid formation [was] so vulnerable to missile fire and so ill adapted to returning it" .
6. Encirclement of the Stark infantry
The Bolton pikemen press upon the remaining Stark forces from three sides, having completed a total envelopment that leaves the loyalists cut off from retreat. The wildlings are unable to break through the pikemen's shieldwall, and their push to advance over the corpses and back onto open ground is blocked by Umber's men-at-arms.
|Weisskunig woodcut, c. 1516|
The Roman-esque or Macedonian phalanx-style Bolton pike formation has received some attention from commentators as an anachronism in the otherwise 'medieval setting' of Game of Thrones, with some admiring the mix of shieldwall and sarissa, while other comments highlighted the overlarge shields as being uncharacteristic of both Greek hoplite and Macedonian phalanx. A strong argument has been made to consider the universe of the show as "belong[ing] to what historians call the "early modern period - the timespan between the voyages of Columbus and de Gama at the end of the 15th century and the French and American Revolutions", but without gunpowder [29, 30]. In that non-medieval context there are indeed examples, of well-drilled infantry wielding long spears who performed tightly-ordered maneuvers to bring about victory on the battlefield, with the Swiss being the most famous. The rest of the battle 'feels' medieval but the Bolton pikes evoke earlier and later periods, so let us look first at an ancient example of an infantry envelopment performed by Greek hoplites maneuvering in phalanx, followed by a brief exploration of the evolving infantry of the fifteenth century and beyond.
The Battle of Leuctra was fought between the Spartans under King Kleombrotos and Thebans led by Epaminondas in 371 B.C. and was a struggle composed entirely of infantry. Both forces were accustomed to fighting in the traditional Greek phalanx, where men stood close together in a wide array of several successive ranks, though each had developed their own unique tactical adaptations to such a homogenous tactical environment. Over time the Spartans had noticed the propensity of all phalanxes to subtly drift to the right, as each hoplite sought the overlapping protection of the next man's sinistrally wielded shield, and developed a flanking maneuver around it. Those men rightmost in their phalanx were trained to surge ahead and to the right of their comrades when approaching the enemy and then to pivot to the left, quickly changing the Spartan formation from the simple rectangle their opponents were more accustomed to facing and into a sort of sideways 'L' shape, menacing their enemy's left flank. The Thebans had conversely developed a system of employing a phalanx that had a narrower front but more ranks, making their formation deeper and harder to envelope. Additionally the Thebans had developed an early form of the subtracted reserve, meaning troops who were not committed to the main fighting at the beginning of a battle, in the form of an elite 'Sacred Band' who were trained to operate independently from their phalanx. Archer Jones recounts the violent clash of these two ancient Greek tactical methods and explains the relevance :
"When the Spartans began the execution of their march to the right and formation at right angles to Theban line, [the Theban commander] Empaminondas realized what they were doing. He then led his deep hoplite array...to attack the extreme right of the Spartan line, and, from [a] position in the rear of his phalanx, Empaminondas sent picked men on a separate maneuver. [This] Sacred Band carried out it's preplanned, independent action to assail the Spartan detachment lining up to prepare it's attack on the flank of the Theban hoplites. The combined effect of these maneuvers overwhelmed much of the the Spartan right, inflicting great casualties and winning the battle in which the Spartan king died. This contest between two [infantry] armies demonstrates...the value of concentration. Similarly...the value of attacking weakness, the Spartans using their maneuver to place part of their phalanx at right angles to the enemy's line to assault the enemy's vulnerable flank. But the movements on the battlefield also clearly exhibit the intrinsic difficult of maneuvering infantry even on the level, treeless plain where the Thebans and Spartans fought. Without an array, infantry became a mob that could neither move nor fight in an organized way. But to maneuver groups of men, especially lines, presented enormous difficulties. Even a line advancing on a level plain had great trouble keeping alignment and preventing gaps. . . Gaps in a line of spearmen could have meant defeat because they exposed the men's vulnerable sides to an adversary's unbroken line. . . The Theban Sacred Band could carry out their separate maneuver because they used only 300 well-drilled, picked men for an essentially preplanned, perhaps rehearsed, task." .
I believe Ramsay's pikemen to be just such a chosen, well-drilled group. Notice that Smalljon Umber and his men, more representative of the unarticulated mob constituting most feudal levies, simplistically charge directly forward to meet the Stark host; it is the two battalions of disciplined pikemen and their accompanying shieldmates who actually maneuver along each flank to complete the envelopment. We can assume these men are the veteran infantry that Roose Bolton jealously protected in his maneuvers leading to the Red Wedding, having continued to serve beyond the War of the Five Kings, likely compensated by spoils taken from Robb Stark's vanquished army and wages furnished by the Boltons' increased taxation powers as Wardens of the North.
The mix of dedicated shield-bearers and spearmen in the Boltons' 'phalanx' is also representative of the more complex types of inter-dependent infantry units which rapidly developed during the transition from the late medieval period and into the early modern era. The evolving combinations transitioned from archers and dismounted men at arms to halberdiers and arquebusiers and eventually led to the bayonet-equipped musketman, who combined heavy infantry's ability to defend against shock combat and light infantry's capability to attack from a distance . A full exploration of this period, while certainly fascinating, is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is worth taking some time to examine the system of maneuverable heavy infantry developed by the Swiss starting in the early 1300s. The Swiss utilized a militia system that was different from the feudal obligation upon which medieval armies were usually founded; rather than having many different subordinate lords who were each responsible for bringing only a few men to muster for a limited time, each larger town or group of villages contributed citizens to their own community militia. The many lords and knights forming the backbone of medieval armies under the feudal system did not train together frequently, whereas the community members who formed the Swiss militias met regularly throughout the year to practice marching and drill. It is worth noting the similarity between the well-drilled militia armies of the Swiss Cantons and the often militia-based phalanx warfare of the Greek city states. The Swiss trained to march and fight in large square formations which gave them the ability to resist attack equally from all directions, and they stressed aggressive offensive action and the ability to move or halt the formation quickly. Their frequent training paid off, and victories like Laupen in 1339 and Morat in 1476 gave them a "reputation for invincibility" as they were able to rebuff cavalry charges and then resume their advance, even overrunning prepared defensive positions .
The large and dense Swiss Square was resistant to shock attack and easy to maneuver compared to linear formations, but still exhibited heavy infantry's vulnerability to missile fire. One instance of Swiss defeat occurred in 1444 at the battle of St. Jakob an de Birs; though the opposing French cavalry could not penetrate the squares, the Swiss could not advance as the French constantly regrouped to mount subsequent harassing attacks. Pinned in place, the Swiss were all but wiped out by fire from French crossbows . Technology improved, and crossbows became more mechanically powerful as well as easier to load and gunpowder weapons (both hand-held and crew-served) gradually became more practical, making these weapons more viable on the open field and not just in sieges or from a defensive position. A piece of military equipment unique to this transitional period is the pavise, which was a large shield most often associated with crossbowmen and handgunners, wielded by assistants known as pavesarii . The pavise featured a hinged metal stake on the bottom that could be used to plant the shield in the ground, giving those behind it a safe refuge for reloading, or the pavisier could hold it and actively defend against incoming attacks. Units of archers or handgunners would almost always have some form of heavy infantry like pikemen or halberdiers attached to give protection against cavalry attack, and so there is some historical accuracy to the idea of men with long spears striking from behind the protection of large shields held by their comrades. These inter-dependent tactical arrays were formidable on the battlefield, featuring a mix of heavy infantry pikemen, light infantry handgunners, and assisting pavesarii, but were more difficult to maneuver than the homogenous Swiss Squares. This can perhaps explain why the Bolton pikemen and shield-bearers are unable to reform and resist the charge of the Knights of the Vale.
7. Royce cavalry charge
Sansa arrives at the head of her second force, under the nominal command of Lord Baelish, a large group of heavily armored shock cavalry tactically controlled by Yohn Royce. Unable to disengage and reform, the Bolton pike formation is broken by the charging Vale knights.
|The Battle of Patay, Vigiles de Charles VII, c. 1470|
In essence, while Ramsay has performed a tactical envelopment of Jon Snow's northern division, Sansa performs a strategic envelopment of the entire Bolton army with her southern division. Charges that this timely dramatic intervention is an unrealistic 'cop-out' by the show's writers are not entirely unfounded. Part of why the "unexpected cavalry saves the day" trope is ridiculed is that such a strategic maneuver coordinated between two allied forces is rare in much of recorded history, with armies lacking the necessary subdivision and articulation until the early modern era. The concept of coordinating distinct army groups on separate fronts against a central enemy is referred to as 'operating on exterior lines' by strategists; conversely an army thus surrounded may attempt to utilize 'interior lines' to concentrate against a single opponent. The earliest example of exterior lines presented in The Art of War in the Western World, the 1066 defeat of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings following his victory over a Norwegian army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge less than a month earlier, is not a combined effort between allies at all, but rather "the fortuitous coordination of the Norwegian invasion with good weather" which gave William the Conqueror a window of advantage within which to launch a separate, competing invasion . A later example is of the English King Edward III's Crecy campaign in 1346, wherein the English king attempted to move his army some 200 miles to link up with an allied force from the Netherlands. Their opponents, the French, aware of both forces and utilizing interior lines, were able to shadow the English and delay their progress for some time by blocking river crossings, but weren't able to accomplish their goal of forcing the smaller invading army into a disadvantageous battle. When the English king finally "crossed the last barrier between himself and his allies, Edward found that the allied army, having met determined opposition, had retreated" . This shows the difficulties inherent in attempting to strategically maneuver separate bodies of troops in the medieval era, and doing so with stealth would be even more difficult. With this said, I still find it within reason that Ramsay and his captains could be either unaware or negligently dismissive of the southerly approach of the Knights of the Vale.
Ramsay's six thousand men are actually a very small force relative to the vastness of The North of Westeros, and the Vale cavalry group under Baelish and Royce is smaller still. Recall that earlier in the television series Roose Bolton calls his bastard son's attention to the staggering scope of the The North's geography. In such a large area, where even thousands of men occupy only a tiny fraction of the available space, Ramsay has concentrated his available forces at Winterfell. This maximizes his local numerical superiority at the expense of his larger strategic awareness. The late Lord Roose had warned his son that a marriage with Sansa would make the Iron Throne an enemy, and Ramsay had violated his arrangement with Petyr Baelysh, so an attack from the south should have been expected.
Still, it was hard for medieval commanders to know the precise location of an enemy force, even if they were aware of or anticipated its general presence. The distinction is observable in Joan of Arc's campaign following the Siege of Orleans, in which she led the liberation of the remainder of the Loire river valley from English dominion, culminating in the Battle of Patay. As previously mentioned, when the French captured the enemy strongholds threatening Orleans from the south bank of the Loire river, the besiegers quit their siege on May 8th 1429 and retreated to English-held Meung. The French then set out to recapture the remaining towns along the Loire, storming Jargaeu on June 12th and on June 15th capturing the fortified gatehouse to the bridge of Meung, effectively blockading the English army inside the town. The French went on to lay to siege to Beaugency, the final town on the Loire under English control, and it was here that they first caught sight of a second English force, long anticipated and originally intended to bolster the siege of Orleans. When this second army approached "very near to Beaugency, the French were alerted of their approach" and "they ordered their soldiers into battle formation on top of a small hill, to better see and verify the appearance of the English" . The English prepared a defensive position of stakes similar to the one they had used at Agincourt but would not attack, nor would the French advance off of their advantageous high ground, and at the end of the day the English marched off towards their besieged comrades in Meung.
This belatedly-arrived relieving army attempted and failed to retake the fortified Meung bridgehead from the French, prompting the English to surrender the city to the French; the soldiers who had been trapped there joined with the ineffective relief force to retreat north towards English-held Janville. Aware that the English were retreating to the North, and with Beaugency surrendering to the French at the roughly the same time, Joan hurried to catch the enemy force in the field . Thus on June 18th the English had marched to a site just south of the village of Patay, when their rearguard spotted the French army closing in. To buy themselves time to prepare their customary defensive position, the English commander sent 500 elite archers to set up a screening ambush in the hedges on the road between the two armies. As the French approached, they were unaware of the archers lying in wait, but likewise the English themselves failed to detect the enemy vanguard, as contemporary witness Jean de Waurin relates:
"With much excitement came the French after their enemy, whom they could not see nor knew...where they were, when, during the front riders' approach, they saw a stag run out of the woods, which made its way towards Patay and crashed into the formation of the English. These [archers] made a very loud cry, not knowing that their enemy was so near to them. Hearing this cry, the French front-riders were certain that these were the English, and also they saw them afterwards very plainly. So they sent some of their companions to notify their captains...that they should press on. Those [captains] promptly...rode so that they saw the English very clearly. . .[The English] thought that all was lost and that [the archers] were in flight. Because of this the captain of the [English] vanguard, thinking that it truly was so, took his white standard, and he and his men took flight and abandoned the hedges" .
Waurin's account demonstrates that even though the English were aware of the French advance, and the route that it would take, they did not perceive the close approach of the enemy vanguard until the mounted Frenchmen were almost amongst them. This had dire consequences for the English as the 500 surprised archers, and a force of English men-at-arms hastily sent to their aid, were quickly routed by the charging French vanguard. The captains mentioned by Jean de Waurin arrived with the main body of the French army and quickly overcame the English defensive position, which had been severely disrupted by the flight of the failed ambushers. The climactic French victory at Patay makes evident that while both adversaries had been aware of the general strategic movements of their opponent for the duration of the Loire campaign, when the armies finally came into contact, tactical detection of the enemy could remain elusive.
Therefor we can suppose that even if Ramsay had scouts or blocking forces deployed to guard against a southerly incursion, they could have easily been bypassed, have failed to detect the swift Vale cavalry, or have been surprised and overcome. Once on the battlefield at Winterfell, surprise allows the charging knights under Yohn Royce to quickly break the Bolton infantry. Although sufficiently well-drilled to execute their flanking march, the Bolton pike formations are a "complex array [of] two interdependent types of infantry" that could not "display much mobility on the battlefield" . Therefore it is believable that, in the confusion of responding to an unexpected but imminent threat, the Boltons are unable to re-order their 'phalanx' into a formation able to withstand attack from all directions. The main impact of the Knights of the Vale is the shock of their unforeseen and timely arrival, akin to the charging French vanguard at Patay, who promptly exploited an essentially accidental tactical surprise to achieve a decisive victory.
8. Storming Winterfell
Ramsay and his general flee to the heavily fortified bastion of Winterfell and ordered their archers to man the walls, but they are pursued by Jon, Tormund, and the fantastical giant Wun Wun, with the latter breaching the gate of the stronghold. Stark loyalist archers follow into the outer bailey and overcome their Bolton counterparts who are still redeploying from within the castle. Ramsay proposes single combat as a final ploy and is defeated personally by Jon Snow as Sansa watches.
|The Siege of Paris, Vigiles de Charles VII, c. 1470|
Although battles are more celebrated and resultantly often better-documented, sieges account for the majority of military action undertaken across most of recorded history. Furthermore, successful assaults of fortifications were also somewhat rare, with the majority of sieges being concluded less dramatically. Mining the walls of a castle could prove successful, but the resultant breach was usually not stormed, as the occupants simply surrendered upon having their defenses compromised. Similarly, a fortified town or keep might agree to surrender unless a friendly army came to relieve the siege by a certain date, and if a friendly army did come, often there was no battle at all as the besiegers simply abandoned the contest. When a battle did occur and the relief force was defeated, fortresses usually surrendered as they could not hope for a second relief force; even very powerful medieval kingdoms that supplemented their feudal levies with mercenaries generally could not field two armies at once or suffer a major defeat and regroup in time to affect the outcome of a siege. This explains Ramsay's confidence in Winterfell's ability to endure a siege despite losing most of his troops, as the strong and well-provisioned fortifications should allow even a small number of men to resist a superior force for some time.
However, the victorious Stark loyalists are able to immediately follow up their success on the field and storm the castle. This is largely due to the giant Wun Wun, the most fantastical element present in the battle, who is able to break down the gate and bodily shield those following him through the breach. Imagining the world of the show as a depiction of mythologized history akin to the superhuman tales of Roland and Charlemagne in the 'Matter of France' can help 'normalize' the presence of this fantasy giant and his impact on the battle. We can envision the Battle of the Bastards as a real event from the distant past, the legends of which describe a massive giant battering down the gates. Several plausible explanations for the source of this legend spring to mind. A siege tower or covered battering ram might become a giant in embellished retellings. Perhaps a purpose-built ram with an elaborately carved or forged 'head' was used, and once discarded appeared to those following to be a mythical giant, fallen just inside the battered gate. Or maybe Jon Umber and his chained-giant banners in fact switched sides (an incorrect prediction by some viewers before the episode), and the gate was opened through this subterfuge, but the shame of treachery meant that this success was ascribed to a monstrous creature of legend. Thus we can see beyond the methods portrayed, however far-fetched, to the relevant outcomes - an army winning in the field and then further capturing the strong fortifications held by the vanquished - and search for historical parallels.
A ready example with similar broad strokes is found within the penultimate day of fighting in the English siege of Orleans in 1429. The lifting of this siege is recognized as a key turning point in the latter stage of the Hundred Years War, much in the way that the Battle of the Bastards represents a dramatic reversal of Bolton oppression in The North. In his 1999 study of Joan's military career, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, author Kelly DeVries describes how successes in the earlier skirmishing around the city and the threat of English reinforcements prompted the French to undertake an attack resulting in the capture of the Boulevard of the Augustins, a fortified strongpoint preventing approach against the heavily garrisoned and English-controlled Tourelles gatehouse; quoting the Journal du siege d'Orleans:
"[The Maid] sallied out of Orleans in the company of [the French captains], La Hire and many other knights and squires, and around four thousand soldiers. And they crossed the Loire river. . . And then the English sallied out of the Tourelles in great strength, shouting loudly, and they made a charge against [the French] which was very strong and harsh. But the Maid and La Hire, and all of the their army, joined together and attacked the English with such great force and courage that they caused them to recoil all the way to their boulevard and the Tourelles. And then they delivered such an assault against the boulevard and bastille...where the Church of the Augustins had once been, that they took it by force, freeing a large number of French who were held there as prisoners, and killing a large number of English who were inside and who had defended it most harshly, such that there had been many wonderful feats of arms, on one side and the other" .
Cousinot's Chronique La Pucelle adds additional details suggesting that the English were initially on the verge of routing the French, stating: "[Joan] went so that she approached the bulwark and planted here [her] standard...but to the road this hour came a cry that the English were coming with power from [the boulevard] de Sainct Prive, for which cry those with the Maid were taken to retire...[Joan] was in great pain and forced to withdraw" when "all of a sudden she turned...and marched against the English...so that they took ugly and shameful flight" . Thus if we consider only the actions and battlespace of this single day, removed from the larger scope of the siege of Orleans, we find the entire Battle of the Bastards writ small: A presumed inferior army (the French / Stark loyalists) seek to retake a fortified place (Boulevard of the Augustins / Winterfell); the defenders (the English / Boltons) believe themselves to be superior and leave the fortress to deliver an attack that initially proves successful, but are ultimately driven to retreat back into their bastion, which is in turn taken by storm.
Looking at the larger conflict surrounding Orleans in the fifteenth century the analogy is admittedly not nearly so tight; the Boulevard of the Augustins was just one of a series of English fortifications partially encircling the city, and was not even the original target of the French assault that day. Joan's squire Jean D'Aulon relates how "the Maid and her people...sallied from the town in good order, to attack another fort in front of the city, called the Fort of Saint-Jean-le-Blanc. . . which they found quite deserted; for the English who were therein, so soon as they perceived the coming of the French, went away, retreating to another stronger and greater fort, called the Fort of the Augustins" . According to D'Aulon "the French [believed they] were not powerful enough to take the fort [of the Augustins], it was decided [to] return [to Orleans] without doing anything further"; D'Aulon and others were selected to act as a rearguard for this retreat where "they saw that the enemy was making a sally from the fort to rush upon their people, [and] immediately the Maid and La Hire, who were always in the front to protect them, couched their lances and were the first to attack the enemy; others then followed and began to attack the English, in such wise that they forcibly constrained them to retreat and enter the Fort of the Augustins" . These additional details reveal how the fortuitous capture of the Augustins boulevard was just one part of the overall struggle to drive out the English besiegers. Still, if we can rely on the testimony of Joan's confessor Father Jean Pasquerel, after the actions of May 6th at least some French captains believed the day's victory to have sufficiently weakened the siege that no further attacks on the English were urgently needed:
"...the Fort of the Augustins was taken, after a great assault. Jeanne, who was accustomed to fast every Friday, could not do so on that day because she was too troubled, and she took supper. After this supper there came to her a noble and valiant captain, whose name I do not remember. He told her that all the captains were assembled in Council; that they had taken into consideration the small number of their forces in comparison with the large forces of the English, and the abundant grace which God had granted them in the success already obtained: 'The town is full of supplies; we could keep it well while we await fresh succor, which the King could send us; it does not seem,' he ended by saying, 'expedient to the Council that the army should go forth tomorrow' .
Joan famously overcame the complacency of the French nobility and convinced the above council to press the attack, resulting in the capture of Les Tourelles on May 7th and prompting the English to empty their garrisons, decline battle, and retreat to Meung as previously detailed. Pasquerel's testimony suggests however that the strategic aim of relieving Orleans might have already been accomplished by taking the Augustins and other lesser boulevards to the east of the city, yielding a decisive local outcome akin to the Starks' retaking of Winterfell. Another similarity is that the capture of the Augustins on May 6th was not originally intended by the French, who had planned for a lesser contest to capture the weaker Jean-le-Blanc boulevard, echoed in the Starks' abandonment of their original defensive plan in response to the changing circumstances of the battlefield.
The Battle of the Bastards is a relatively accurate cinematic portrayal of pre-modern open-field combat between multifarious armies, with distinguishable maneuvers that evoke historical analogues and demonstrate conformity with the accepted capabilities of classical weapon systems. Examining the stages of the battle individually has hopefully yielded a deeper appreciation of both the fictional action depicted and the historical combat evoked. If one is willing to adopt a certain liberty of interpretation as I have, the Battle of the Bastards can be just as 'realistic' as the romanticized battles in historical films like Braveheart.
 John Keegan, “Some Primitive Peoples and their Warfare” through “The Beginnings of Warfare,” in A History of Warfare, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 94-115.
 J.H. Todd, ed., Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with Gaill (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867), 175-177.
 Todd, Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, 171.
**The king's son Murchadh, however, would not heed this counsel, calling it "timid and cowardly."
 Kelly DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999), 57.
 Kelly DeVries, “Joan of Arc's call to Crusade,” in Joan of Arc and Spirituality , eds. A. Astel & B. Wheeler (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 111-126.
**The author presents compelling evidence that Joan had aspirations of launching a new Crusade, envisaged to be undertaken by a reconciled France and England, to reclaim the holy land.
 DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, 92.
 DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, 95.
**If one conceives of this passage as being passively pro-English and de-emphasizing Joan's role at Orleans, as DeVries does, then one might interpret the text into modern slang as: "Well, the Yankees were gonna go help their bros, but the Frogs had this chick with them, so..."
 T. Douglas Murray, ed., Jeanne D'Arc: Maid of Orleans, Deliverer of France, Being the Story of her Life, her Achievements, and her Death, as attested on Oath and set forth in the Original Documents, (London: William Heinemann, 1903), § 6 ¶ 37, http://www.stjoan-center.com/Trials/#nullification
Testimony of Jean De Champeaux and other burghers (notable non-aristocratic citizens) of Orleans.
 Jean-Claude Colrat, A Study of Jeanne D'Arc's Standard, www.stjoan-center.com/j-cc/
 Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 144-145.
 Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 158.
**The Scottish archers, as well as a few cavalry on the scots side who didn’t participate in the battle at all and thus aren’t mentioned in my synopsis, probably fled into nearby woods in the face of the opening English charge rather than being cut down in place and killed. This still left them ‘destroyed’ in terms of military function relevant to the battle.
 Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 170.
**Jones highlights the confusing and demoralizing effect of the English archery, rather than its lethality, on both the mounted and dismounted attacks by the French at Agincourt.
 Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 42.**Here the author is first exploring the capabilities of the four distinct weapon systems through the lens of ancient militaries like the Romans or the Greeks and the combined-arms tactics of Alexander of Macedon.
 Archer Jones, "The Stirrup's Enhancement of the Effectiveness of Cavalry" and "Western Europe's Struggle against Raiders" in The Art of War in the Western World, 102-106.
 Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith, Medieval Weapons: An Illustrated History of their Impact (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007), 56.
**This excellent and up-to-date volume presents more than just a cataloguing of military implements and their specifications, presenting this information instead via a thorough chronological analysis of medieval warfare; the authors use this methodology to consistently demonstrate that shock cavalry's intimidating character contributed to their dominance in kind with their evolving equipment.
 DeVries and Smith, Medieval Weapons, 116-117.
 Keegan, A History of Warfare, 297.
**In the proceeding paragraph the eminent author describes the honor-bound combat of armored horsemen as "self-defeating."
 Catherine Tihanyi, trans., "The Marchiennes account of the Battle of Bouvines" in The Legend of Bouvines: War, Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages, ed. Georges Duby (Oakland: University of California Press, 1990), § 1 ¶ 7, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-bouvines-1214/
 Matthew Bennett, Jim Bradbury, Kelly DeVries, Iain Dickie, and Phyllis Jestice, Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), 115-116.
**The authors present a composite of the battle, synthesized from the The Marchiennes account and other sources, that describes the action via stages in a similar method to that of this essay.
 DeVries and Smith, Medieval Weapons, 117.
 DeVries and Smith, Medieval Weapons, 56.
**Here the authors are specifically describing cavalry-vs-cavalry combat; we may perhaps infer that the Stark loyalist horsemen are thus "better led" than those under Karstark.
 Bennett et al, Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, 45.
 Scott Manning, “Battle of the Bastards is Straight from Medieval Chronicles,” Historian on the Warpath (2016), § 8 ¶ 9, http://www.scottmanning.com/content/battle-of-the-bastards-is-straight-from-medieval-chronicles/
 Bennett et al, Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, 49.
 Bennett et al, Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, 55.
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 170.
**Jones’ account of the battle mostly comes from the earlier Arthur Burne’s The Agincourt War (1956).
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 144.
**In the text quoted, Jones’ is actually describing infantry attempting to resist cavalry charges, but the description is applicable to the defensive character and vulnerability of medieval heavy infantry.
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 312.
 Benjamin Breen, “Why Game of Thrones Isn’t Medieval and Why that Matters,” Pacific Standard (2014), http://psmag.com/why-game-of-thrones-isn-t-medieval-and-why-that-matters-64ac36616d27
 Matthew Yglesias(August 23, 2012). “Westeros' Uneven Level of Technological Progress,” Money Box (2012), http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/08/23technology_in_a_game_of_thrones_and_the_song_of_fire_and_ice.html
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 5-6.
 Jones, “The Swiss Heavy Infantry” through “The Bayonet, The Flintlock, and Further Changes in Tactics,” in The Art of War in the Western World, 175-272.
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 178.
**At Morat, the enemy commander believed that the Swiss would never be able to advance through missile fire to seize a prepared position, and thus dismissed a large number of his troops from the fortified frontline and back to their camp (a folly echoed in Battle of the Bastards by Ramsay's retirement of his archers from the battlefield to Winterfell midway through the action).
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 177.
 DeVries and Smith, Medieval Weapons, 183-184.
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 110.
**In the text Jones does not explicitly depict William the Conqueror's victory at The Battle of Hastings as an instance of operating on exterior lines, however it is categorized as such in the index.
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 163.
 DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, 112.
**The author also details Joan's careful reconciliation of the French royal army under the Duke of Alencon and a second French force under the disgraced constable Arthur de Richemont, and the possible influence this had the English decision to refuse battle outside of Beaugency, mirroring the fictional intrigue of Sansa enlisting aid from the distasteful Littlefinger.
 DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, 114-116.
**DeVries offers convincing reasons why the French could have reasonably opted not to chase the retreating English and solid evidence that Joan's proactive military aggression prompted the pursuit resulting in the Battle of Patay, even though she took no direct role in the actions on the field that day.
 DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, 117-120.
**Additional support for the role of tactical surprise in the French victory at Patay, and the historical veracity of the providential stag, is presented in note #82 for Chapter 5, page 218.
 Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, 312.
**This and preceding sections feature details on commanders who attached missile troops to formations of various types of pikemen or halberdiers, employed in emulation of the Swiss squares but with a ranged attack capability, and how these mixed units found wide success but never achieved the maneuverability or discipline of their tightly-knit militia-based antecedents.
 DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, 84.
 Guillaume Cousinot, Chronique de La Pucelle (Paris: Adolphe Delahays, 1864), 291.
**Translation is my own; the original passage contains additional details regarding the boat-bridge used by the French in crossing the Loire (not particularly relevant to the analogy), as well as describing the English perception that the French were fleeing and their resultant charge shouting insults and "diffamables" (beyond my ability to properly translate, but reminiscent of Ramsay's taunting contempt).
 Murray, Jeanne D’Arc, § 8 ¶ 42-43.
 Murray, Jeanne D’Arc, § 8 ¶ 44-46.**D'Aulon's testimony, couple with Cousinot's account, provide an additional analogue to Games of Thrones. Joan and La Hire "couched their lances", charged alone, and were "the first to engage the enemy," and both were untitled peasants who had risen to captaincy, akin to Jon Snow.
 Murray, Jeanne D’Arc, § 8 ¶ 7.
**It is worth noting that the testimony of Jean D'Aulon, Father Pasqueral, and others from Joan's nullification trial, was delivered on prompts to describe why the deponents believed Joan to have been divine, or inquires as to miracles they had witnessed; therefore we can infer that the contemporary participants believed the French victory outside the boulevards and the ensuing capture of the Fort of the Augustins on May 6th to have been a "miraculous" victory.