Author Archives: Helene Benkert

Visiting a Destrier of the Royal Collection

At the end of February, Prof. Alan Outram and Helene Benkert had the honour of meeting one of the formidable Destriers of the Royal Collection. Copper, a lovely chestnut mare, used to serve as a jousting horse at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and starred in many cinematic productions during her time. She is now enjoying her well-earned retirement near York, under the loving care of Matt Cooper.

Copper, Destrier of the Royal Collection

We went north to visit them to use Copper as a guinea-pig for our studies of horse morphology. She graciously endured her role and kindly accepted mints as payment.

First, Matt discussed the various aspects of conformation that a horse should sport in order to be suitable for jousting. We then armed ourselves with tape measures and began putting numbers to the features Matt had pointed out. Though Copper was a little sceptical of our tools at first, she allowed us to continue so long as she had hay to munch in the meantime.

Copper has her own full set of armour which she very patiently donned once again for us to inspect and admire. She certainly looked dashing, though perhaps a bit unhappy.

Copper in her full armour

Putting on all the different bits of armour followed a meticulous protocol and took quite a bit of time, but it helped to understand how all the parts work together and in relationship with the horse. Seeing her move with her metal shell, the impact full armour had on the horses’ movements became clear. Though she was not hindered in her mobility, she walked differently to counterbalance the weight. When working in the armour, she would have had to balance the rider’s weight and movements as well, highlighting the achievement of an excellent warhorse.

Putting on the armour

Our particular interest was on her shaffron and how its measurements would translate to her head. It turned out that it is rather complicated to find the corresponding measurements on both shaffron and head in a way that is reproduceable.

Her measurements will be used to understand the relationship between armour, horse, and skeleton. In the absence of actual horses in the archaeological record, we rely on such modern references to draw conclusions from the materials that we do have available: the bones and the armour. Copper will help us to better understand and interpret this data.

We are very grateful to Matt and Copper for their patience and willingness to help and, of course, their valuable insight into the working side of a medieval jousting horse.

The Price of Riding

The horse’s body was not meant to carry a saddle, let alone a rider encased in clanking metal.

Riding is unnatural, and although there are ways to keep the damage to a minimum, it will take a visible toll on the horse’s skeleton.

These pathologies — deviations from the normal structure of bones and teeth caused by disease, age, or stress — are a valuable tool for the zooarchaeologist as they can illuminate aspects of the animal’s life and sometimes death.

For the Warhorse Project, pathology is a true treasure trove. Injuries, possibly sustained in battle or on the tournament field, or evidence for regular riding, all hold the potential to tell us something about the lives of horses in the Middle Ages.

Bony changes in the horse’s spine are a relatively common result of riding. Fusion of several vertebrae or even entire backs can frequently be seen in the zooarchaeological record.

Abnormal bone growth caused by ‘Kissing Spine’ in a medieval horse from Latvia (Photo: H. Benkert)

The abnormal weight of a rider (or any heavy load) on their back forces the spine to bend downwards, which brings the spinous processes of the vertebrae (long bony projections protruding from the top of the vertebrae) much closer together than they should be. When they touch and grind against each other repeatedly this causes new bone growth around the affected area — a painful condition called ‘Kissing Spine’.

Fusion of vertebral bodies in a horse spine from early Anglo-Saxon Britain (Photo: H. Benkert)

To counter this, the horse will become stiff in the back in an attempt to minimise movement between the vertebrae. Similarly, the bones themselves will react to the repeated strain by growing bony bridges between vertebrae, locking them into place. Such fusion in the spine can be a normal consequence of old age and it is not uncommon to find it in two or three lumbar vertebrae. However, exceptional strain on a horse’s back may eventually lead to the complete fusion of the spine, known as a ‘bamboo spine’.

 

 

For any pathological condition to grow as severe as an immobile spine, the animal must have survived it for a considerable amount of time. That means its owners or caretakers cared for the animal, indicating a bond between humans and horses that reached beyond mere exploitation. It paints the horse as a companion and partner that did not lose its value even when it outlived its usefulness.

Horsepower

The standards demanded of a medieval warhorse were enormous.

A destrier needed to be strong enough not only to carry a rider in full armour but also armour of their own. They needed to be large and sturdy enough to be able to withstand the chaos of battle and to potentially charge through the ranks of the enemy without breaking stride. Yet they also needed to be fast and agile enough to be able to manoeuvre quickly. And, perhaps most crucially, they needed to have nerves of steel.

As a flight animal, i.e. one that would run away in the face of danger, most of these demands are unnatural to the horse. Charging at another being goes against all a horse’s natural instincts, with the noise of battle alone enough to trigger flight. Add to that lethal arrows dropping from the sky, sharp weapons cutting and stabbing all around them and bodies crashing into each other and you get a potent mix that would send any animal into a frenzied flight.

 

In light of these challenges, it seems an extraordinary feat to train efficient and deadly cavalry.

In spite of all the brutal looking bits and spurs and other riding implements of the medieval period, both horse and rider must have been exceptionally well-trained. A horse was a knight’s life-insurance (and worth huge sums of money), so they had to be reliable.

Modern jousters know this as well as any medieval knight did. Some horses are just not the right “person” for the job, some might only cope with it for a season before they refuse to ever charge again. The horse must be mentally and physically able to comply with the high demands of war and tournament.

Cold-blooded horses, for example a Percheron or Suffolk Punch, tend to be not only sturdy, strong animals but also have a much calmer disposition than a temperamental thoroughbred. That is not to say that the latter are unsuitable for war, and there is plenty of evidence of the contrary. However, they are more suited to a very different style of fighting on horseback as employed by various Near Eastern and Eastern European peoples for example.

For the classic medieval Western European style on the other hand, relying heavily on strength and force, a horse more reminiscent of a modern cob or light cold blood was needed.

The Warhorse Project’s aim is to trace these very horses across medieval Europe, from their physical development to their training and usage. Understanding where, when and how medieval warhorses emerged and evolved will shed more light on military transitions and associated social changes such as the development of chivalry.