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.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: The Sources for Investigating Medieval and Tudor Horses

What sorts of records are available that allow us to investigate the horses – in particular warhorses – of medieval and Tudor England? Dr Gary Baker, Senior Research Associate on the ‘Warhorse: The Archaeology of a Military Revolution?’ project explains all.

Horses were an everyday part of life in medieval and Tudor England and were used for a multitude of purposes: transport, communication, agriculture, hunting, racing, and, of course, war. Indeed, the armoured knight on horseback is the most evocative image of the Middle Ages in the popular imagination. Tens of thousands of horses of all shapes and sizes were utilized by the English at war from the Welsh and Scottish campaigns of Edward I to the wars of Elizabeth I, from the great and expensive destriers favoured by royalty and the nobility to the everyday rounceys of men-at-arms and mounted archers and the humble pack horse, which lumbered in the baggage train.

The feeding, welfare, upkeep, breeding, buying and selling, and stabling of horses, as well as the recruitment and arming of men and horses for war, has generated a massive corpus of documentary material in the surviving records of medieval and Tudor England. These records were generated at both a national and local level, and are scattered in numerous archives. Alongside the physical remains of horses and their accoutrements, this blog post highlights some of the key sources and most prominent record series (and the type of information they provide), that the team on the AHRC Warhorse project are utilizing to explore the warhorse in medieval and Tudor England.

Professor Robert Liddiard (left) and Dr Gary Baker (right) examining a sixteenth century account at the UK National Archives

Equitium Regis Accounts

A box of equitium regis accounts at The National Archives (right)

These royal stable (equitium regis) accounts are housed in the The National Archives UK (TNA), enrolled on the series E 372 pipe rolls (the particulars of which are contained in series E 101). They contain details of the management and expenses incurred by the royal stables and king’s studs. They date from the late thirteenth century until the reign of James I, and were compiled and sent to the Exchequer by the Keepers of the King’s Horses north and south of the River Trent, and, from the end of the fourteenth century, by the Master of the Horse. Some accounts consist of only a single folio whilst others are several membranes long.

The contents of these accounts include payments and expenses for provisions for the horses, equipment, stabling, the sale and purchase of beasts, and the number of animals under officials’ care. There are also miscellaneous entries such as the provision of livery for horses of noblemen visiting the royal household, and purchases for some medical expenses and healthcare for the horses.

Detail of TNA E101/97/2, account of the royal stud at Chester (1283–4) including purchase of cut grass (herba) for nineteen of the king’s horses and one of the queen’s mounts.

Horse Appraisal and Restauro Equorum accounts

These two inter-related sets of accounts, dating from the reigns of the first three Edwards (1290s to 1360s), are a unique survival of an important period of the development military service. They are located primarily within TNA E101, though some can be found in other documentary series. As part of the terms of service agreed between the Crown and men-at-arms, the Crown agreed to assess the value of a horse of a man-at-arms and pay the soldier compensation if his mount was lost on campaign. The horse appraisals are lists of warhorses appraised by the royal commissioners prior to campaign, and provide the name of the mount’s owner, the type of horse being appraised, a brief description of the beast (in terms of its colouring and distinctive features), and monetary value. The restauro equorum accounts are the sister documents to the horse appraisals, listing horses which had previously been assessed and denoting that they had been killed on campaign and the value paid to their owner in compensation.

Detail of E101/14/15 m.2 showing horses assessed for service in 1314 headed by Sir Andrew de Harcla: ‘Dominus Andreas de Harcla habet unum dextrarius peys pomele precii – XX libras’; ‘Master Andrew de Harcla has one destrier, pied spotted, price of £20’.

Private and Manorial Accounts

Manorial accounts are some of the most varied and numerous documents in existence in medieval and early modern England, and concern the business and administration of the manor. Accounts of stabling and the upkeep of horses can often be found, but there is not standard documentation, with content varying from manor to manor. Some are quite extensive, such as the Winchester Pipe Rolls, the most complete set of manorial accounts in existence, dating from 1208–9 in an almost unbroken series to 1710–11. Private household accounts are often just as fruitful, containing information about the administration of the household and its affairs.

Detail of E101/93/20 (1357-9) showing the purchase of hay for 38 horses and 5 hackneys in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady Clare

Accounts of Royal Works

These are records of the Clerks of the King’s or Queen’s Works, the Surveyors of Works, and constables of royal castles. As their name suggests, they relate to works and repairs to royal properties. Though not specifically focused upon horses and stables they certainly provide important details related to the use and stabling of these animals.

Detail of E101/458/9 f.2v, (1537–8) a description of the stables in the east ward of Barnard Castle, County Durham, which is ‘is decayed in diverse places’.

Miscellaneous Documents

As mentioned earlier, the sheer amount of records of horses and warhorses generated in medieval and Tudor England has meant that there are thousands or records that do not readily fit within neat categorizations. Often this is because the documents in question were not compiled specifically for the purpose of recording information on horses but note them in passing. The nature and benefit of such records is that they sometimes provide details about horses and their equipment which more rigidly structured official accounts do not. One such type of sources are inventories of the goods of deceased persons. In 25 July 1536, for example, John Gostwyk compiled an inventory of the goods of  Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, who had died two days earlier, including the contents of his stable.[1] He possessed four horses (a jennet[2], a black, a bay, and a sorrel),[3] a little mule, two other mules, six geldings, and three nags, with several saddles including one of green velvet with a harness of the same fringed with green silk, another of buff leather with a harness of black velvet trimmed with gilt work, and a third of white leather with a harness of black velvet with great gilt buckles.

Detail of inventory of the goods of Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, 1536 (British Library Royal MS 7 F XIV f. 99r).

Wills are another excellent source of information on horses and their role in society. Horses and horse equipment were often prized and valuable goods and bequeathed to close family members and associates. Edward, Duke of York, who died at Agincourt in 1415 made his will during the siege of Harfleur on 17 August. He left to John Popham of Hampshire, ‘my new brigandines of red velvet … the bascinet that I wear and my best horse’ and ordered that his saddles and harnesses be equally divided amongst the members of his retinue, ‘except that I wish that Rokell [one of the duke’s household archers] should have the best’.[1] Over three centuries later in 1633, Phillip Weath the rector of Hinderwell in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, bequeathed to his wife Elizabeth ‘my Nagg Andrewe to ride on’.[2]

Detail from Will of Phillip Weath, 1633

The above highlights only a fraction of the source materials the team on the AHRC Warhorse project are looking to investigate. We hope to provide more interesting information as we find it in the coming months.

Dr Gary Baker is the Senior Research Associate on the AHRC warhorse project, currently working at the University of East Anglia.

Notes

[1] Baker, G. ‘To Agincourt and Beyond! The Martial Affinity of Edward of Langley, Second Duke of York (c.1373–1415)’, Journal of Medieval History 43:1 (2017), p. 50.

[2] York’s Archbishops Register: Entry 1, Register 32 f.29 (verso) entry 1 <http://https://archbishopsregisters.york.ac.uk/entry/s7526f70g> [Accessed: 23 Sep 2019]

[1] BL Royal MS 7 F XIV, ff. 83r–99v.

[2] A small Spanish horse.

[3] Chestnut.

 

Warhorse at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

Our project’s PhD student Helene Benkert has been on another mission to infiltrate the world of medieval re-enactment. This time it took her to Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, one of the largest gatherings of its kind in Europe.

Thousands of enthusiasts gather each year on the fields near Tewkesbury Abbey, the very same fields where on 4 May 1471 the Lancastrian army was defeated by the Yorkist contingent, to relive this critical battle. Stalls and tents of re-enactors from all over Europe are scattered across the area and swarmed by excited visitors.

Just like the big Easter Jousting Event at Leeds, Tewkesbury’s Medieval Festival draws a huge crowd. It seems, hitting each other with sticks – whether lances or swords, on horse or on foot – is as popular as ever. At least, they have cut back on the blood that gave The Bloody Meadow its name.

While this event is mostly horse-free – there is a single mounted knight with a stunning Percheron-type grey, aptly named ‘King’ – there would have been plenty of equids in the original battle, whether for combat or transport.

In lieu of the actual horses, the ‘Warhorse’ project acts as their ambassador at Tewkesbury. Armed with posters, flyers and real horse bones from Exeter’s reference collection I go about my mission to draw people into the world of medieval warhorses. And people are most willing to follow the lure.

After a fabulous day of chatting with many wonderfully engaged and interested people about our project and horses in general it is time for the Big Event, the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury. Narrated like a modern football game, we watch the drama unfold as several hundred re-enactors in full armour and armed with lances and swords charge at each other in a rain of arrows and the smoke of large guns. It truly is a spectacle and the audience dutifully holds their breath and cheers at the appropriate moments.

For the final skirmish, re-enactors and visitors alike make their way through Tewkesbury town and to the abbey. The conclusive beheadings are accompanied by much cheering and laughter (perhaps not too much unlike the real ones some 600 years ago) and followed by friend and (revived) foe joining each other for a pint or many.

It’s wonderful to see so many people interested in history and a town so invested in its own past. As much as importance is placed on authenticity, the feeling of community and integrity within the accurate historical settings is just as valuable.

Next year, we will be back to represent medieval warhorses. We will happily share our newest research and chat about horses. There will also be fun activities for old and young alike, so do pop by and say hello.

Jousting at the Royal Armouries

Helene Benkert, a doctoral student studying at the University of Exeter as part of the Warhorse project, went on a fact-finding mission to the Royal Armouries to experience their world-famous Easter jousting event. In future years the project hopes to develop display materials that can help engage with members of the public at these events.

Helene writes:
The International Jousting Competition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds is a huge event. Even in our modern times, jousting can still draw a big crowd. It wasn’t any different back in the medieval period.

Perhaps a little like football matches today, nobility would come together to ride, fight and cheer. Those knights successful enough would be celebrated like stars. Often enough, however, a career was ended prematurely through serious injuries or even death of the combatant, and attrition rates for horses were notoriously high.
Tournaments emerged in eleventh and twelfth centuries as a way to train for war and pass time between battles and campaigns. Soon they developed into the biggest sports events for nobles and a stage to show off skill as much as wealth and status.

The joust, where two knights on their valuable warhorses would charge at each other with lances, is the most widely known part of these competitions. Horses, of course, were an integral part of these tournaments.

The horses competing with their “knights” at the Royal Armouries in 2019 are sporting their owner’s colours and shiny metal chaffrons are protecting their heads. They pick up on the excitement of the audience and reenactors around them, ears pricked and prancing about the arena.

These are stunt horses – professionals – from Atkinson Action Horses, and they are used to all sorts of noise and racket. They are highly trained, just like medieval war and tournament horses had to be excellently trained to ensure their riders’ safety and, of course, victory. The horses were and are the real stars, directed by the knight in the saddle.

Back in the Middle Ages, a destrier or charger would have been the best bred and trained horse on the market and sold for exorbitant prices only the very rich could afford. Bigger than normal working horses, these were swift, fierce and strong stallions, clad in silver armour.

They certainly are impressive to watch in the tilt yard of the Royal Armouries as they gallop towards each other in the bright colours of their owner’s house. It is easy to imagine people enjoying this kind of entertainment so many centuries ago as the modern crowd cheers for their favourites.

Next year we will be back, with lots of facts and fun on and around medieval horses. So come and join us for talks, activities, crafts or a chat.

Written in bone: Zooarchaeology and the Warhorse project

A large component of the Warhorse project is the analysis of horse bones from medieval archaeological sites across Britain. Zooarchaeology, the study of ancient animal remains, provides insight into the unique roles that animals held in the past, both as food but also more significantly as important companions critically linked to social and cultural practices. The bones of these animals can tell us about their physical appearance, health, age at death and lifestyle, all of which combine to help us better understand the use of horses in the medieval period, and particularly to highlight the impact of their use in warfare.

   Fig.1 Assorted animal bones, including horse from Ipplepen, Devon

Animal bones are frequently recovered in large numbers from archaeological sites in Britain, often in refuse pits where the bones are the remains of food waste (Fig. 1). However, animal bones are also found as part of special deposits that could include animals which were given their own burials, animals included in human burials, or animals which were ritually deposited in other contexts. Understanding the context that remains are found in is an important first step for interpreting the roles of horse in the medieval period. While some burials of complete horse skeletons do exist, more often horse remains will be isolated elements as part of larger bone assemblages of many different species.

Fig.2 Disarticulated horse skeleton

For the Warhorse project, we will be using a combination of approaches to analyse these horse remains to integrate as many strands of evidence as possible for understanding the variation of medieval horses. We will begin by using traditional zooarchaeological techniques, which include taking a series of standardised measurements from the animal bones. These metrics will be used to provide evidence of size changes related to stature, including a detailed and systematic study of size, robusticity and shape, which could help us identify changes related to the increased use of horses in military activities. We will also record pathologies associated with working horses, such as spavin in the lower legs, back pathologies and bitting damage, to provide evidence for activities associated with military use/training.

Fig.3 Anatomical drawing of horse skeleton, showing location of elements used for GMM

Alongside these traditional metric analyses, we will apply advanced 3D geometric morphometrics (GMM) to study variations in astragalus and calcaneus bones. These particular elements have been selected as they are easily identified within archaeological assemblages and tend to preserve very well in one piece, an essential criterion for 3D GMM. Because these elements are located in the limbs (Fig. 3), their morphological variation is likely to indicate during life changes related to locomotor requirement. These requirements would likely differ between horses used for military and domestic purposes. Digital 3D models will be created through a well-used method of structure-from-motion photogrammetry (Fig. 4), which is quick, inexpensive, and does not damage specimens. By combining both the traditional metrics with these more advanced GMM techniques, we will be able to generate a new, independent chronology of changing horse size, morphology and appearance which will increase our ability to detect husbandry practices and management strategies during the medieval period, and hopefully identify a unique horse morphology specific to horses used for military purposes.

Fig.4 (top) Horse astragalus being photographed using photogrammetry, and (bottom), horse calcaneus during the modelling process.

 

Website Launch

Welcome to the webpage for a new research project on the archaeology of medieval warhorses that has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. While the website is still at an early stage of development — do watch out for new content as it builds — we hope that our page provides you with an initial snapshot of the work we have planned and that it gives some flavour of why we are so excited by it.

Over the next three years, our team of archaeologists and historians will be conducting the first ever integrated and systematic study of that most characteristic beast of the Middle Ages — the warhorse.  As well as being a famed weapon of war, the medieval horse was an unmistakable symbol of elite social status closely bound up with the development of knighthood, chivalry and aristocratic culture. Crucially, in developing a new archaeological approach to the subject, our project hopes to add something different and distinctive to our understanding of horses but also, by extension, to speak to some of these other intriguing and much-debated topics.

Our work will be wide-ranging: team members will be re-examining the physical remains of horses in the form of bones as well as the material culture associated with them, including horse apparel and armour, and mapping the landscapes in which horses were bred and trained. As such, we hope that our work will be engaging and interesting for a really wide range of people: not just medieval and military historians, zooarchaeologists (specialists in animal bones) and those interested in the historic landscape, but also people with a passion for all things horsey! We will be working closely with our collaborating institutions, the Royal Armouries and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, to develop events and activities that seize on the depth of public interest in equine culture and showcase our work more broadly.

One of the fascinating things about starting on an ambitious research journey of this sort is knowing that as well as making new discoveries on these various different fronts, other new possibilities and will reveal themselves as the work progresses. A project of this scope is also bound to have unanticipated spin-offs that we look forward to seizing upon and sharing. We hope that you look forward to following our journey on this website, via our Twitter feed (@AHRC_Warhorse), or — a little further down the line — through the events, publications and displays that our project will create.

The Project Team

February 2019