Sunday, 8 January 2017

Angels on horseback

Stick some bacon round your sausages and you've got pigs in blankets. If you've got more cash to splash, you can stick your bacon round some oysters and amuse your bouche with angels on horseback. If you're more diabolically inclined, you can substitute prunes for oysters and snack on devils on horseback.

Stick a pair of angel wings from a child's Nativity play onto the back of a strapping great calvalryman, however, and you get something like this:
This isn't artistic license, or a picture of horsemen dressed up for some sort of parade or pageant. Apparently, there were real people who actually charged into battle kitted out like this. Specifically, the "winged hussars", who formed the elite cavalry force of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the 16th and 18th centuries. This is what Wikipedia has to say about those wings:
The Hussars were famous for their huge "wings", a wooden frame carrying eagle, ostrich, swan or goose feathers. In the 16th century, characteristic painted wings or winged claws began to appear on cavalry shields. The most common theory is that the hussars wore the wings because they made a loud, clattering noise which made it seem like the cavalry was much larger than in reality and frightened the enemy's horses. Other possibilities included the wings being made to defend the backs of the men against swords and lassos, or that they were worn to make their own horses deaf to the wooden noise-makers used by the Ottomans and the Crimean Tatars.
I'm not convinced by the theory that the wings were some kind of anti-lasso countermeasure - I'm no expert on the history of warfare, but I do know that cavalry's been around for a very long time and I've never heard about any battle where the attacking cavalry were thwarted by lassos, or of any other example of cavalry equipment being developed to defeat a specific lasso threat. If this had happened, you'd think that the lassoers would be as well-known as, say, the Agincourt archers.

As for swords, well, those were around on the battlefield for a long time, too - if they were a serious threat to cavalry, and if big sticky-out wings neutralised that threat, why didn't any other cavalry sport protective wings (at least in the pre-firearms period)?

The idea that these were a form of psychological warfare, intended to intimidate and impress, sounds more plausible to me - it would also fit in very neatly with warrior elites' typical love of extravagant display and generally showing off. The idea of getting the horses used to, or drowning out, alarming noises on the battlefield also sounds as if it might work.

Bizarre though they look to modern eyes, the winged hussars seem to have been effective in their day, most notably when they scattered the Swedish forces at the Battle of Kircholm in 1605.

These days they look as bonkers as Batman going off to fight crime in a mask, tights and a big black cape. At least to most people - if you're a follower of the aptly-named Mad Monarchist site, you probably think the world's gone to hell in a handcart now that a chap can no longer charge about on his horse, wearing dirty great angel wings and administer a jolly good thrashing to any commoner disrespectful enough to find it funny.