Author Archives: Oliver Creighton

Latest Project Publication in Science Advances

Our latest project publication in the journal Science Advances is now available open access.

Using cutting-edge isotopic science, applied to the archaeological site of Elverton Street, Westminster, it reveals this Tudor-era horse cemetery as the resting place of elite imported animals. Click this link to access it.

Read the University of Exeter’s press release here.

New Project Publication

We are delighted to announce our latest project publication, which you can read here.

This open access article in the journal Arms & Armour discusses the famous Warwick Shaffron, which is part of the Royal Armouries’ collection. Through a new programme of analysis, the article explores what this item and similar objects can reveal about the size of medieval horses.

End of Project Blog

This blog marks the conclusion of the formal funded phase of our AHRC Warhorse project, but our work of course continues as we develop publications and use the project’s achievements as a platform for future funding bids and other initiatives. So please do watch this blog for future updates.

The following account draws on the end of project statement submitted to our funders to first flag some of our key research achievements and, secondly, to reflect on how our research is having an impact on the wider world.

The headline is that our project succeeded in carrying out the first ever systematic and integrated study of the full range of archaeological evidence for warhorses and horses in medieval England — from scientific samples extracted from teeth through to analysis of bones, equestrian artefacts and armour, and the sites and landscapes associated with horse breeding and training.


Key Findings

The work has created new knowledge on three main fronts:

First, in the field of zooarchaeology the project applied cutting-edge GMM (Geometric Morphometric) and isotopic sampling methodologies to medieval horses for the first time. This has enabled the skeletal signatures of breeding and training regimes to be ascertained and for the biographies of individual horses to be revealed, and highlighted Europe-wide movements of breeding stock in a case study site in London. A headline finding about horse stature from a project database of 8500+ bones is that most medieval horses were below the size of modern ponies (1.48m to the withers, or shoulder), and detailed measurement of over 130 items of horse armour confirms the findings suggested from bone evidence. While popular perceptions of medieval warhorses picture large beasts, not a single bone from the entire project indicated a medieval horse that would have met the size criteria for a modern police horse (1.68m). Our zooarchaeology dataset is one of several important resources that we have now uploaded to the Archaeology Data Service website ( where they are freely available for researchers.

Image of the ADS homepage where datasets from our work can be accessed and downloaded.


Second, in the field of landscape history, the work has generated entirely new information about an aspect of the medieval countryside (the horse stud) that had been neglected. Over 800 medieval documents have been examined to provide information on the nature and organisation of studs, principally during the High Middle Ages. The project produced the first ever mapping of the English royal stud network, clarified the number and location of stud sites (within parks), characterised their landscape contexts (frequently in uplands or wetland zones), and reconstructed their hinterlands. The work highlighted that while studs can be located to places, physical traces of their buildings and infrastructure are exceptionally ephemeral.  It has also drawn attention to the tendency to misidentify equine structures, especially stables, as being for other livestock and purposes.

Third, in terms of debates within medieval archaeology and history the project has provided new evidence for continuity and/or change across the Saxo-Norman divide by highlighting that in terms of equestrian material culture the Norman Conquest had a minimal signature, with the introduction of the curb bit the principal indicator of change. Mapping of equestrian material culture from a project database of 14,000+ separate artefacts shows great potential, previously unrecognised, to map the footprints of medieval tournament sites and (through harness pendants decorated with arms and symbols) noble families. Follow the ADS link above to access our online dataset.

As an overall methodological achievement, the project’s integrated approach has made a powerful statement about how barriers between traditionally discrete research fields can be broken down to produce new understandings. In answer to the key questions of (1) whether we can identify warhorses in the archaeological record; and (2) whether the warhorse was a breed, a selection or some sort of cultural product, we can reach some preliminary conclusions by combining all our lines of evidence. First, it is rare for warhorses to be deposited in archaeological contexts which clearly identify the function and role of the animals. It is, however, clear that exceptional care was taken to breed and train appropriate horses, including importing or being gifted suitable animals from overseas. Whilst selective breeding in a stud network formed a key part of warhorse management, the destrier cannot be considered to be a ‘breed’. It more likely represents a selection for appropriate temperament and body conformation, accompanied by intensive training that resulted in highly valuable steeds. Warhorses might additionally be marked out to some degree by activity-related bone remodelling and pathologies. While the ‘great horse’ was likely of a larger stature than the average medieval equid, the metrical evidence from animal bones, horse armour and other material culture, suggests that raw size was considered less of a key trait than the physical and mental characteristics highlighted above. 


The impact of the project on wider non-academic audiences and stakeholders was of central importance to our work. The key areas of impact, recorded through the period of the funded project (Feb 2019-March 2023), fall into four areas.

First, the project generated benefits for our partner organisations. The Portable Antiquities Scheme, run through the British Museum, benefitted from the delivery of three intensive training workshops on recording equestrian artefacts to over 100 staff and volunteers and from the delivery of 10 freely available finds guides to help metal detectorists record items such as harness pendants and horseshoes (see According to the Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme: “What is most important is that the work of the results of the project’s partnership working – the training workshops and freely-accessible finds guides – have a legacy, transforming the way that staff and public volunteers record metal-detected equestrian objects” (Professor Michael Lewis, 2023). The Royal Armouries benefited from the experience of working with an academic partner, including enhancement to its catalogue and records, opportunities for the co-publication of results, and enrichment of outreach activities (the project had a presence at two public events run by the Armouries attended by over 17,000 members of the public).

Second, the project is playing a key role in changing public perceptions about the size and appearance of medieval horses, which are often based on experiences of film and TV.  A press release which accompanied a project publication in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology generated 197 press articles in 34 countries, while project staff have contributed through the podcasts and programmes including BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ to reach mass public audiences. The project had a presence at five large public events attracting 41,400 members of the public in total and generating reactions from participants such as “I had no idea a medieval warhorse could be so small; it’s fascinating to hear that historical films can get it so badly wrong!”

Third, the project’s findings have been actively promoted and disseminated on the national and international conference circuit, with staff speaking at 18 separate events in the UK to reach in excess of 750 participants and 15 events in a further 10 countries reaching a minimum of 550 participants.

Compilation image of outreach events and lectures involving members of the Warhorse team


Fourth, the academic impact of the work is having knock-on effects for the way that equestrian heritage is presented in museums and heritage sites. For example, Historic Royal Palaces reported in January 2023 that their website for Hampton Court has been amended to reflect our project’s findings. Another example is the way that English Heritage’s newly installed signage and the new (2022) official guidebook for Launceston Castle, Cornwall, now recognise a building on the site, which was previously misidentified, as a medieval stable, on the basis of the project’s findings.

Beyond these impacts, the high level of public interest in all manner of equine pursuits, such as show jumping and horse racing, is likely to open up opportunities for further aspects of public engagement, which the project will exploit, including through a Follow-on-Funding Bid.

With so much to shout about, and such exciting possibilities for the future I can only end this blog with the most enormous thank you to the incredible, energetic team of talented researchers that have driven the work forward, as well as to our project partners and everybody who has shown an interest. But the work continues…  

Start-of-Year Project Blog for 2022

To begin a blog with the observation that 2021 has been an ‘interesting year’ is a tiny bit of an understatement! Amidst ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, it was certainly a challenging twelve months for a multi-stranded research project that relies on access to resources such as collections, sites and archives, but also a time presenting fresh opportunities and in which our work made great strides on several fronts. This start-of-year blog reflects on some of these successes and signposts some of the ways our project will continue to develop through 2022.

The assemblage of horse bones from the medieval horse cemetery site from Elverton Street, London arriving in the Archaeology Department at Exeter.

The Elverton Street horse bones in the bone laboratory at the University of Exeter for sorting, measuring, sampling and analysis.

The Zooarchaeological Work Package has seen new developments alongside ongoing activity. We were delighted that Kate Kanne, from Northwestern University USA, was able to join our research team, supported by Covid contingency funding through the University of Exeter, working alongside and complementing the activity of other zooarchaeologists on the project, Carly Ameen, Alan Outram and Helene Benkert. In recent months, Kate has been leading the way in sourcing assemblages of medieval horse bones for analysis at Exeter, including remains from some ‘classic’ sites of English medieval archaeology, such as Launceston castle, Cornwall, and the rural site of Goltho in Lincolnshire. One star acquisition has been the assemblage from Elverton Street, London, a site near Westminster excavated by the Museum of London, who we have collaborated with to facilitate analyses of the materials. As well as conducting our usual array of zooarchaeological techniques on these remains (including metric work, X-ray analysis and genetic sampling), an exciting new departure is the way that we have been able to sample the teeth from this assemblage for isotopic work (see this earlier post). We eagerly await the results and what they can tell us about where these animals came from. In this and several other aspects of our project, it has been fantastic to integrate University of Exeter Undergraduate and Postgraduate students into the work, with Masters student (and keen equestrian) Tess Townend leading the way with sampling the teeth as part of a coursework project.

Recording of medieval equine material culture underway for the Warhorse project: measuring a shaffron (or head armour – note the mesh, providing eye protection in a joust).

A selection of medieval horse harness pendants in a private collection. Note the representations of coats of arms and other symbols of noble families on the artefacts.

Our Material Culture Work Package, led by University of Exeter Researcher Rob Webley and supported by student intern Laura Jones, has progressed well on three main fronts. First, spatial analysis of digital records held by the Portable Antiquities Scheme has continued apace, with the publically accessible nature of the database continuing to be a godsend through periods of Covid-related lockdown. Among the many achievements are the mapping of equestrian apparel — especially horse harness pendants — bearing the coats of arms or symbols of prominent noble dynasties, which has allowed us to map the footprint of these families in new ways. Second, the easing of Covid restrictions as 2021 progressed enabled the team to make visits to two nationally important private collections of artefacts containing a wealth of medieval horse gear. These materials provide a really instructive means of gauging the typicality or otherwise of the Portable Antiquities Scheme data and for inspecting objects at first-hand, and we are delighted to have carried out the work. Third, the re-opening of museums and archives has meant that our programme of measuring medieval horse armour has resumed, with a visit to the amazing collections of Glasgow Museums already undertaken and firm plans for visiting and recording other internationally important collections in the UK and the USA in 2022.

View towards the former Great Park at Stratfield Mortimer, Berkshire. The curving hedge-line marks the boundary of the medieval park, which contained an important horse stud.

Turning to our History and Landscapes Work Package, which is critical to our project’s interdisciplinary edge and scope, the research programme led by our team at the University of East Anglia (Rob Liddiard and Gary Baker), has continued to work through documentary material as much as pandemic has permitted. Related research on landscapes of horse breeding and training has proceeded by locating parts of parks associated with horses through field-names, historic maps and, of course engagement with arguably the most important source of all for this aspect of our project — the historic landscape itself. The image below shows one prime example of the site of a medieval horse stud that the team are interested in: Stratfield Mortimer, in Berkshire. This was a park of the Mortimers — a powerful aristocratic family based in the Welsh marches — that came under royal control for periods of the fourteenth century. The team’s analysis of financial accounts for the stud allow us to chart the numbers and types of horses bred and trained in the park in particular years, including records of numbers of foals born and the proportion of mares and stallions. At the University of Exeter, French researcher Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui has been making excellent progress on her work on manuscripts relating to a text on veterinary medicine and horse-training written in Latin by the Italian knight Jordanus Rufus (Giordano Ruffo) around 1250.

The year 2021 also saw our portfolio of publications growing. The first issue of the new journal Cherion: The International Journal of Equine and Equestrian History contains a paper co-written by the Warhorse project team that showcases our interdisciplinary approach and contains a case study of how our lines of evidence intersect to cast new light on the medieval stud at Odiham, Hampshire. A second significant publication is our study of medieval horse metrics in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. At the time of writing, our paper has attracted news coverage around the world, with members of the research team dealing with press and giving interviews for radio stations from Canada to Australia, and many places in between.

Alongside these academic outputs, our programme of outreach, which continued on digital platforms through Covid-lockdowns, has received new impetus, with displays at public events (see this earlier blog), and we have ambitious plans for the coming year including an appearance in the summer at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival — arguably Europe’s largest medieval battle re-enactment.

Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is the way these activities, lines of evidence and routes of enquiry interact with one another. At outreach events, our team members can always be sure that members of the public will provide snippets of information providing new insight and perspectives — often relating to their own through practical work with horses — that can feed into our academic activities. Especially stimulating is the interaction between our work packages at different levels and the ways our research directions complement one another. Cutting-edge archaeological science can reveal things the documents are silent on, while material culture analysis can sometimes tell us about the appearance of specifically high-status and military horses in a way the bones cannot. Landscapes bring our entire subject to life, and illuminate the settings for equestrian activities. Documents, where they are available, can afford amazingly precise information on horses for certain years but absences in others, while our archaeological evidence is sometimes dated less precisely but affords us a broad picture over longer periods. This is the inherent fascination of our work, and as the project moves towards the final stages of data collection and as the results of analysis come in we look forward to sharing our results and achievements.

Warhorse and Public Engagement: Pop-up Shop of Science and Culture

An empty shop opposite Princesshay in Exeter city centre might seem an unlikely place to see the AHRC Warhorse team sharing their enthusiasm for the project, but a Saturday in late September witnessed this location transformed into a ‘Pop-Up Curiosity Shop of Science and Culture’  by Agile Rabbit in which members of the public could engage for free with demonstrations, talks and activities. Styled the ‘Maketank Gallery’, the space was transformed into a veritable research bazaar on Thursday afternoon, with stalls and displays showcasing cutting-edge work, ready for Saturday’s main event.

Members of the Warhorse team with the stall prepared and visitors eagerly awaited…

Public outreach is integral to our project, and the Covid crisis has presented some major obstacles with our planned activities over the last 18 months, although we did take advantage of digital methods of delivery to organise training workshops that were covered in an earlier blog. The Pop-Up Shop provided us with a fabulous opportunity to showcase our project, its team and some of our findings and activities to members of a very diverse public. We produced a table-top exhibition from which we delivered ‘show and tell’ activities throughout the day to a great range of visitors, from shoppers opportunistically popping in, to some formidable specialists on all things horsey…

Our stall presented an array of materials covering different aspects of our work — particularly horse bones and equine material culture. The public were particularly drawn to — and sometimes mystified by — the horse bits, and really enjoyed handling our collection of horse bones, including a skull. A fragment of fused horse spine — the condition known as ‘bamboo spine’ — from the Department of Archaeology’s collections  drew some gasps as members of the public realised the damage that carrying heavy loads could wreak on an equine body.

A fused horses spine from an archaeological context. Many people commented on the pain the horse must have felt: “really gruesome but really interesting” in the words of one young visitor.

A ‘design your own horse harness pendant’ kit proved an instant hit with Exeter’s younger folk, with many producing their own heraldic designs and hearing strange words such as ‘tincture’ and ‘argent’ for the first time!

The ever-popular ‘make your own horse pendant’ kit, aimed at children.










One of the most engaging questions we posed members of the public was to guesstimate how tall a medieval warhorse would have been. With the help of a special horse measuring tape, marked out in hands, we were able to draw on the results presented in our soon-to-be-published paper in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology to show how medieval horses were far smaller than the Shire horse-sized beasts of popular imagination. “I had no idea a medieval warhorse could be so small; it’s fascinating to hear that historical films can get it so badly wrong!” proclaimed one enlightened visitor. Another commented on how interesting it was to hear about archaeologists “hunting down the mythical beast” that is the medieval warhorse.

One of the most exciting aspects of our project’s development is the way that the research team has grown to encompass students at different stages of their journeys, and it was excellent to see current University of Exeter students who had carried out research on warhorses as part of their studies join in alongside our doctoral students, post-doctoral research staff and investigators.

Overall, the event attracted well in excess of 300 members of the public and proved a fabulous showcase for our work. We sincerely hope that we are able to seize on similar opportunities in the future.

Members of the warhorse project team talking with some engaged members of the public at the pop-up exhibition stand.

Summary blog of work over the last year

A year is a long time in research, and the interval between the last project summary blog in January 2020 and this update twelve months later has seen some seismic shifts in ways of working for a project such as ours due to the ongoing Covid pandemic.  As well as confronting some obvious challenges, our project has put in place mitigations and work plans to drive the work forward and make exciting progress and new discoveries on several fronts.

A meeting of Warhorse project staff 2021 style

The Zooarchaeological Work Package has developed in particularly innovative ways during the crisis in order to mitigate some of the difficulties around many museums and archive collections being closed for long periods of time, which has prevented ready access horse bones for analysis.  Carly Ameen, our Project Officer, has led the way in building a large digital dataset of existing measurements of horse bones. Containing in excess of 6,000 records sourced from a wide network of zooarchaeological collaborators, this dataset is proving a rich and remarkable platform for deep analysis of horse metrics. Preparing this resource has been time consuming and involved, including extensive cleaning of records and streamlining for consistency, but we are quietly confident that it will enable us to model changes in horse size through the centuries in a way not previously possible. Preliminary analyses are both promising and intriguing, and the database has the potential to bring out contrasts between horse remains from different types of sites (such as castles, religious communities and settlements) and between the rural and urban worlds, as well as through time. We are already preparing a manuscript for a paper to present some headline results. Despite the issues of accessing museums, the team has still managed to locate specimens of horse bones from some choice sites that have been transported to our facilities in Exeter for sampling and analysis (see this earlier blog post). The materials have ranged widely — from early medieval horse bones derived from Whitby Abbey on the coast of Yorkshire through to early modern examples from Bradgate Park, Leicestershire — and our work has involved X-Ray recording and the extraction of samples for genetic analysis that have been mailed off to our partner’s laboratory in Toulouse. We await seeing the preliminary results…

Progressing our Material Culture Work Package during the Covid-19 pandemic has been a little less challenging than some other areas of the project given that it has as its core the analysis and enhancement of a digital resource that is fully online — the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database. Aided by Laura Jones, a University of Exeter Undergraduate Archaeology student on a year-long work placement with our project, Rob Webley has been driving forward work on cleaning and enhancing digital records relating to equestrian finds and on the spatial analysis of findspots. The project has already contributed to the development of the online Finds Recording Guides created by the Portable Antiquities Scheme — this link gives a good flavour of the work and of the types of horse gear that metal detectorists around the country are finding every day. Sometimes copper-alloy components can help us analyse equipment otherwise dominated by iron — an article published recently by Rob Webley suggests that a previously mysterious type of mount was in fact used on (iron) bridle bits. Harness pendants have been a particular focus of work, and the team have broken new ground in exploring representations of heraldry on these tiny but illuminating artefacts (see this earlier blog post) and studying their patterning in the landscape. One particularly tantalising possibility that we are exploring is that some documented medieval tournament sites preserve diagnostic artefact scatters including horse harness pendants. In the last year we have also made great initial strides with measuring armour, starting with the stored collections of the Royal Armouries in Leeds (see this blog post), but this is an element of the project that will have to stay in abeyance until museums and collections open up.

The History and Landscapes Work Package, led by our team at the University of East Anglia (Rob Liddiard and Gary Baker), has been making remarkable progress despite the challenges presented by the non-accessibility of some key historical archives during the Covid pandemic. The preliminary work on photographing records of royal horse accounts held by the National Archives in Kew that was carried out pre-pandemic has meant that some initial analyses have been possible — for example see this blog post on what these documents reveal about the maintenance, care and feeding of horses in the fourteenth century. One of the aspects of the project that excites us most is the potential for interplay between different categories of evidence, and a particularly novel aspect of this work package is the question of how we can relate documentary records of horse management to the physical evidence of the landscape. Excellent progress has been made on mapping for the first time the nationwide distribution of horse studs as it evolved through the centuries, and on reconstructing the hinterlands on which individual studs drew upon for resources. Hard details on the appearance of stud infrastructure is proving frustratingly elusive in the documents but we are hopeful that future combing of select archives will produce results, while the evidence of place-names provides another clear area of potential: see this blog for some early thoughts on what place-names can tell us about medieval equine landscapes. Over the course of the next year we will be selecting sites for fieldwork, including geophysical surveys, in our hunt for stud sites, and following up other leads in the documentary record.

With a series of journal articles in different stages of development and some already out: see for example: and the outline of our project monograph developing fast, the team is keeping a keen eye on outputs and even follow-on funding opportunities to help build a legacy of our project. Project team members are also active on the international conference circuit, with highlights among planned presentations over the coming months being a paper at the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) conference and the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies.

Do look out for future posts as the project develops in these directions and others.

Back in the Laboratories after Lockdown

The project team were delighted to be back in the laboratories this week and thought that followers of our blog might be interested to see some images of us in action.

Following the nationwide lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the University of Exeter is now able to facilitate access to laboratories and other technical facilities for some prioritised work, and it is excellent that we have been able to make some good early progress with the zooarchaeological (animal bone) work package of our project.

In the ‘new normal’, health and safety requirements are of primary importance course, and we have been finding new ways of working in our COVID-secure spaces.

This week we have been concentrating on taking small samples from horse bones and teeth that we will be sending to the laboratory of our project partners in Toulouse, France (see In this world-leading specialist laboratory, our French collaborators will look to extract the ancient horse DNA that can hopefully shed light on where our medieval specimens fit into the ‘family tree’ of equine evolution.

The process of extracting samples, which is captured in the photographs below, is delicate and complex. Cleanliness is paramount, so the person taking the samples wears protective gear and a double set of gloves, while the cutting takes place on tin foil, so that all residue can be easily removed between samples. Tools need to be cleaned with ‘DNA-Away’, a decontaminant that prevents cross-contamination between samples.

To minimise damage to the bone, only a small sliver is removed, by cutting two small parallel slots with a dremel (a rotary cutting tool) or a small electric saw. The sample is then prised out with a screwdriver and bagged for dispatch to the lab in Toulouse. The project team are looking forward to hearing back on the preliminary results and thinking through their implications…

Members of the project team working on bone sampling in COVID-19-compliant working conditions.

Cutting a horse tooth from Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, in order to extract a sample.

Sampling medieval a horse bone from Windsor castle. The small electric cutter allows precision work in order to minimise destructive damage to the bone.

One of the sliver-like samples of bone. This one (from the medieval settlement site of West Cotton, Northamptonshire) appears to be very well preserved, which bodes well for the prospects of being able to extract ancient DNA from it.

Our set of bagged and labelled samples, ready for dispatch to the laboratory in Toulouse.

End of year blog

It has been a busy year for the Warhorse project, with work progressing on multiple fronts. We thought that a quick end of year blog would be a useful way of summarising some of the key activities and achievements so far and for alerting everybody to our packed programme for 2020.

In terms of our team of post-doctoral researchers, we have welcomed on board Dr Gary Baker, who, working alongside Prof Rob Liddiard, has been making great strides in capturing documentary references to the royal network of studs. Preliminary results are really exciting, and we can report that the project has already generated an initial map of how the royal studs were distributed across the English landscape, which we think is the first time this has been done.

We are also delighted to welcome to the team Rob Webley, who from spring 2020 will be working on the material culture work package of our project, examining all things metal and equine from harness pendants to horseshoes. Rob has a fantastic pedigree of working with medieval objects through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and we look forward to developing this side of the project with him on board. We have already made good progress in collecting together some excellent examples of medieval representations of horses on wall paintings and sculpture (see images below, taken by Prof Oliver Creighton).

Sculpture of St George on a tympanum, Damerham, Hampshire

Norman warhorses on a capital at Wakerley, Northamptonshire

On the zooarchaeological front we have set up our Geometric Morphometrics Lab with new digital photogrammetry and X-ray facilities, and 2020 will see an energetic programme of data collection in the UK and Europe led by our Project Officer Dr Carly Ameen and our dedicated PhD student Helene Benkert, working with Prof Alan Outram.

Our programme of impact and outreach activities also continues to gain momentum, with project members present at the Royal Armouries’ Easter Joust, at the Tewkesbury re-enactment and at the Being Human Festival in Exeter Cathedral. Team members have already contributed to the Leeds International Medieval Congress, the Society for Medieval Archaeology Student Colloquium, the International Council for Archaeozoology GMM Conference, Paris, and the Postgraduate Zooarchaeology Forum in Yerevan, Armenia.
If there is one thing that excites our project team most is the potential for integration between our different strands of evidence. We have our first Steering Group in March 2020, and while it is still early days for our work, with over two years still to run, we will be turning our minds to the ways our different work packages need to interact and add value to produce new insights.

2020 will also see team members analysing and measuring horse armour, and trying to draw our first connections between surviving material culture in modern-day museum collections and the dry bones of long-dead medieval horses. The challenge is to understand what the ‘live’ horses of the medieval period looked like when all we have are their bony endoskeletons and their humanly created steel exoskeletons. So bring on the next stage of our project …

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.

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