This article breaks down a few historically significant moments from the Battle of the Bastards between Jon Snow & the Wall’s forces and Ramsay Bolton and his vassals. This is from last year: Season Six, Episode 9 of Game of Thrones.
[Author’s note: I wrote this last year but I got a little carried away with the illustrations. I created 12 drawings for different parts of the battle and then I got sick shortly after that so I never published this article. This is why the article reads as though I had just scene the episode. ]
This is the first true pitched battle the show has ever had and it brilliantly captures the chaos.
It’s worth noting that most wars weren’t waged with pitched battles – a battle in which the enemy meets on a battlefield and fight head on — as much as you would think. Far more common were sieges, raids on peasant villages, ambushes and other tactics. In fact, the standard advice was to avoid meeting your enemy in open battle.
This article briefly looks at Ramsay’s strategy, the use of the longbow, and Agincourt.
For the record, it sucks that Ramsay is dead. He was my favorite villain and the show won’t be the same without him. He was the secret spice. He made us hold our breath, terrified that he might hurt somebody – and he often did. He united us in our hate. How on earth is HBO going to replace him? But, at least they gave him a fitting send off.
One of the many reasons that I love Ramsay is because he was so superbly strategic. This episode showcased his shrewd, clever gamesmanship right from the beginning of the battle. Sansa warned Jon, “You don’t know him.” And she was right. He played Jon like a fiddle.
Pitched medieval battles began with the two sides facing off in a huge open field. We’re talking thousands if not tens of thousands of men so the land had to be pretty big to hold them all.
At the beginning of a typical battle, the opposing armies stood into different units.
- Infantry – the men on foot – might be in the front and center.
- Archers flanked them on the right and left sides.
- Cavalry sat waiting on their horses behind the archers.
The armies might also have pikemen and other soldiers. The infantry might be pikemen.
Ramsay easily breaks battle Jon’s formation
Before the battle, Tormund is worried because Ramsay has so many more mounted soldiers than they do. This is a problem because
The way medieval pitched battles typically worked would be as follows:
- The bulk of most medieval armies would be in the infantry – the army’s poorer recruits.
- Typically, the infantry would try to break the other side’s infantry formation, and the cavalry would try to break their enemy’s cavalry formation.
- The infantry’s tight formation protected them. Once the infantry lost its tight formation and there was enough physical space for the enemy’s cavalry to ride in there, it would do so, swords swinging — and attempt to mow down as many of the infantry as possible.
The height gave the cavalry a huge advantage. They could easily lob off infantry heads and cut open their chests. Plus the knights trained their horses to be kicking-and-biting half-ton war machines. (If I had to guess, I’d say one mounted cavalry soldier is probably the equivalent of six foot. The cavalry were almost like mini-tanks sweeping across the medieval battlefield.)
Bear all of this in mind when you think of how Ramsay opens the battle. He plays a “game” and causes chaos.
Once Ramsay reveals he brought Rickon to the battle, he surprises Jon and his men by not stabbing Rickon with his dagger – and instead cuts Rickon’s ropes and frees him.
Ramsay makes Rickon run across the field, which gives Jon the fleeting hope that he might have the chance to save his brother.
Once Rickon starts to run, Ramsay, who is an expert shot, pretends to miss the boy.
It’s only once Jon rides deep into the battlefield and nearly can nearly grab Rickon up off the field that Ramsay shots the killer arrow through the boy’s heart.
Until this point, Jon’s army is so distracted by the action that nobody realizes the danger: their leader is isolated and vulnerable.
Ramsay’s trap is set. He knows Jon will want blood.
Jon hesitates for a moment. Tormund and Davos know what he is thinking. Tormund even says, “Don’t.” Not that Jon can hear him.
Davos, who has been wary all along of Ramsay’s stunt, rallies the cavalry, crying: “Prepare to charge.”
The Wall’s scant cavalry begins to move into formation.
This gives Ramsay exactly what he wants.
Jon, already more than halfway across the battlefield, charges heedlessly towards Ramsay. He’s bent on revenge. Ramsay counted on this.
At Ramsay’s command, his archers release a volley of arrows. As the arrows are still falling from the sky, Davos orders the cavalry to follow Jon into battle: “Follow your commander!” Mistake #2. The Wall cavalry charge into the field.
The arrows land, instantly killing Jon’s horse.
Jon tumbles onto the battlefield. He is now on foot.
Ramsay commands his cavalry to charge at Jon.
And, it’s Richard III, “My kingdom for a horse” time. Richard didn’t face a charge of cavalry per se but close enough. In his own way, as the youngest of the three Stark/York “brothers,” Jon is like Richard III. Northern and perhaps even heroic. In this trio, Robb is a young Edward IV and Theon is Clarence.
Now, I realize this may sound a little flippant, but after rewatching this scene the five or six times it took to understand what happened in that battle sequence, I can only conclude one thing:
Jon Snow is an Idiot
More on this later. To give Jon his due, this foolhardy or naive attempt to save Rickon is a symbolic way of exonerating Richard III of the murder of the Princes in the Tower, notably the youngest prince Richard of Shrewsbury. If you believe the R+L=J theory, Jon is close to being an avuncular figure to the youngest “prince” who coincidentally has a “Richard-like” name.
Jon pulls out his sword and prepares to make his last stand.
Just as Ramsay’s cavalry is about to crush Jon, the Wall cavalry arrives. Thousands of pounds of horses skid and collide into each other. Chaos ensues.
But, what does Ramsay care? His men are expendable.
Ramsay orders his archers to shoot on the melee. (Davos, to his credit, does not.)
Without even moving his horse, the mastermind has wiped out Jon’s cavalry in the first few minutes of battle. Ramsay may be a “worthy adversary” for Jon — a term writers use to characterize the importance of having equally matched adversaries — but Jon is not for Ramsay. This is child’s play for Lord Bolton, and Jon is outmatched in this battle of wits.
As the number of survivors left in the horse/man brawl shrinks, Ramsay stands on the sidelines, most of his army full intact and releases volley after volley of arrows.
Ramsay has effectively destroyed the most powerful part of the Wall army and has its general in serious trouble.
And, again, he hasn’t broken a sweat.
There are piles of dead in the center of the melee. It is reminiscent of Agincourt, the 1415 battle during the Hundred Years War where Henry V defeated the French with archers and longbows.
The French had a larger force of 12,000 to 36,000 relative to the English’s 6,000 to 9,000 men. The French also had far more cavalry than the English and they discounted the danger from English archers. French lords rode eagerly into the vanguard only to be annihilated by English arrows.
There is a famous quotation, which of course I can’t find, about there never being a day when so many French noblemen were killed by their horses. And, men killed by their horses is exactly what happens in the Winterfell melee. In addition to the swords, chaos, and arrows, Jon and Ramsay’s men are crushed under the weight of tons of skidding horse flesh.
There are other similarities with Agincourt as well:
- The Wall’s army corps is primarily low-born free folk. At Agincourt, most of the archers in the army were commoners and peasants. “All with bare feet,” wrote the French chronicler Pierre Cochon. “…dressed in scruffy doublets made of old bedding, a poor iron skullcap on their heads … That was all the armour they possessed.”
- One side (Ramsay’s) exploits the longbow.
- One side (the Wall) has a much smaller force — and not nearly enough cavalry.
But, back to Ramsay’s strategy.
All of these dead horse and men create a mountain at the end of the battlefield.
Ramsay deliberately waits to deploy his infantry until after this mountain is “built.”
Smalljon Umber — another one of Ramsay’s clearly well-briefed commanders — leads the infantry out around the mountain and outflanks the Wall army, surrounding it on three sides in a U-shape. Oh-oh.
Ramsay exploited the terrain
Ramsay wasn’t just a brutal sadist, he was also a brilliant strategist. Maybe all of those years living under an abusive father, perhaps even dreaming of scraps of his affection, wired strategic behavior into the natural born killer.
Ramsay almost certainly positioned his army on the battlefield first. Jon and his commanders should have been wary that Ramsay chose the low ground. Nobody chooses the low ground.
Ramsay makes Rickon run because he wants Jon to be at a certain point — in the low ground — when he kills Jon’s brother. (In fact, Ramsay may have even positioned his burning sigils on the battleground not just to use his “brand” to intimidate the Wall army, but also to demarcate the terrain even more clearly. Ramsay wouldn’t be able to look at the hills on the side while aiming at Rickon.)
Other tidbits from history
The Volley of the Longbow Arrows
Everything from the cry “nock,” to the placement and use of the archers to the way Ramsay’s men shot the long bows up in the air was exceedingly realistic.
Game of Thrones has shown this before, but when English archers prepared to shoot during battle, their commander typically cried, “Nock!” The nock is a notch on the rearmost end of the arrow. The archer uses it to hold the arrow in place on the string as he draws the bow.
In battle, medieval archers shot their arrows up in the air and not straightforward to deliver more force behind their shots. When they fired a volley of arrows, it didn’t necessarily matter where the arrows went. There were so many arrows that they would likely heavily damage any men and horses in whatever section of the battlefield they struck. By shooting the arrows upward and forward, the archers could exploit gravity to deliver even more deadly power in the last moments of each arrow’s flight. (Otherwise, if the archer fired the arrow straight forward, it would just peter out and fall on the ground — if it didn’t hit a target when it was still flying forcefully.)
If you look closely, Ramsay’s men are shooting long arrows. It seems likely that these could be an allusion to the English longbow, which the English famously deployed at Crecy and other battles during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Longbows were huge. According to archeological work on the Mary Rose ship, some Tudor longbows were over six feet, partially because they had to read a specific point on the archer’s body.
Some historians believe that modern men would struggle to draw the bows – and certainly to shoot arrows from them in rapid succession. Archeologists have estimated the draw at anywhere from 90-185 lbs. Some bows may have been drawn by the archer falling into the bow and not necessarily drawing the string back.
If that sounds wimpy to you, consider this: today, the average male Olympic archer can only draw 48 lbs.
Cheaper than the crossbow, longbow arrows could easily penetrate chain mail armor, which made plate armor increasingly necessary.