Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Readers of my novels will know that I like my characters to have nice horses, so I thought I'd look today at the various types of Medieval horse. There weren't any named breeds as such back in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries as we know them, although some were famed by region and what were required re type of horse was definitely known. Horses from Lombardy were prized as destriers. Spanish horses ditto. Norman baron Robert de Belleme was known to run Spanish grey horses on his Welsh Marcher lands in the late eleventh century.
Horses were known and named by their their function, their colour, their owners, their place of origin. We know William Marshal had a horse called Blancart, suggesting it was white. Richard Coeur de Lion had one called Fauvel, which meant it was a golden colour - perhaps a dun. A horse called Morel was a shiny black. We still have this with morello cherries. A Sorel horse was a chestnut or sorrel, a Bayclere was a bright bay, a Grisel was a grey.
William FitzStephen, talking of horses at the Smithfield Market in the later twelfth century speaks of the horse fair at Smithfield in London which is held on the 6th day of the week, barring feast days. Earls, barons, knights and all the citizens of London come out to look at the horses. 'It is a joy to see the ambling palfreys, their skin full of juice, their coats a-glisten as they pace softly in alternation raising and putting down the feet on one side together; next to see the horses that best befit esquires, moving roughly yet nimbly, as they raise and set down the opposite feet, fore and hind.... then the younger colts of high breeding, unbroken and high stepping with elastic tread, and after them the costly destriers of graceful form and goodly stature with quivering ears, high necks and plump buttocks. As these show their paces, the buyers watch first their gentler gait, then that swifter motion wherein their forefeet are thrown out and back together and the hind feet also. When a race between such trampling steeds is to begin, or perchance between others which are likewise, after their kind, strong carry, swift to run, a shout is raised, and horses of the baser sort are bidden to turn aside. Three boys riding these fleet-footed steeds, or at times two as may be agreed, prepare themselves for the contest. Skilled to command their horses, they curb their untamed mouths with jagged bits and their chief anxiety is that their rival shall not gain the lead.' As well as all the above high status horses, plough beasts and cart pullers are for sale too.

I've written up a few definitions, thoughts, and leading points below.

Destrier. A warhorse and valuable. It was ridden into battle and at tourneys but was not used for general riding purposes. Its name is supposed to come from the idea that either it led from the right hoof when galloping down a tiltyard run and turning, or that it was led from the right. There has been debate. Generally a destrier was a stallion, although I don't doubt that there some geldings and mares among the mix. The size of a destrier in the period I write about (late 11th to 13th centuries) was around fifteen hands high. This is according to equine historian Ann Hyland. It would look something like a modern Welsh Cob or quarter horse, or Frisian, or the Villanos type of Spanish Andalusian. The idea was to have a strong, stocky animal that was lively in movement, could live on poor rations if it had to, and that was capable of short, sharp bursts of speed - the shock charge i.e. it had to have the same straits as a good steer roping horse today and be strong enough to bear the weight of a mounted, mail-clad knight without sagging in the middle. Historian Matthew Bennet has also compared the destrier of this period with the stronger types of Morgan Horse. Cart horses they certainly weren't, as Medieval illustrations prove. You quite often come across destriers as gifts in the pipe rolls of the period, where they are referred to by the macho sounding Latin title of Equo or Equus. In 1208 Henry de Fontibus gave King John a Lombard destrier as a gift in order that he might take the daughter of Henry FitzHervey to wife. (The great roll of the Pipe for the tenth year of King John. Yorkshire. Nova Oblata)

Palfrey: A knight's or ladies riding horse. Highly bred and of good quality. A knight would ride his palfrey to the tournament or over longer distances and spare his destrier. These too are often found in the pipe rolls, as 'gifts' to appeast the king. Palfries could be divided up further into the ordinary and the Ambler As mentioned in FitzStephen, these horses walked first with their left side then their right rather than moving alternate hooves front and rear. This made for a much smoother pace. Tim Severin, when he followed the crusader's route to Jerusalem, took up with an ambling horse along his journey and it's interesting to read his descriptions of how smooth the ride actually is. These horses were sometimes also known by the old French Haquenai from which our word 'hack' or 'hackney' comes. Such horses are referred to from the thirteenth century. Since Henry II once had a mistress called 'Hikenai' I wonder if she was a good ride. (cough!). Seriously, I wonder if that's where the word came from.

Courser Comes from Chazurius - a chaser, the name used from the end of the 12th century. A horse for hunting and coursing as the name suggests. A fast hunter. The sort that was mentioned in FitzStephen's description of London in connection with 'boy racers'. The courser was the ancestor of the modern racehorse - in type if not in direct blood breeding.

Rouncy. This beast was for general all purpose riding by soldiers of lesser degree. It was a solid, all round beast that would serve you well but wouldn't draw the crowds and win friends and influence people. When the great William Marshal was down on his luck as a young man, he had to sell his cloak in order to buy a horse and all he could afford was 'un rocin' worth twenty two Angevin shillings. (I dramatised this scene briefly in The Greatest Knight). Unfortunately he needed a pack horse too, which he didn't have, so his Rouncy had to double up.

Sumpter This was what should have carried William's arms and supplies. A sumpter horse. These were really bog standard. Any lower and you'd be loading a donkey. There aren't that many illustrations of sumpters about, but in England there are plenty of native ponies that have been used extensively for haulage and on the pack routes down the centuries, so very likely the Yorkshire Fell and Dales ponies are descendants of the type, as is the ancient Cleveland Bay breed too. The latter were known as 'chapman horses' because it was the chapmen who brought the goods throughout England with their pony pack trains. These days the Cleveland has been bred up in size and mixed with thoroughbred, so is a large creature than the sumpters of yore.
Dales Pony: http://www.kellas-stud.co.uk/dales.htm
There's a description of a knackered old packhorse in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal.
One of William's rivals tries to fob him off with the beast, pretending it's a destrier William won earlier (some chance!). 'Whereupon Peter brought forward a pack horse of his, with the same colour coat, grey, but it had got to such an age that it was thin and worn-out, broken-backed and covered in scars. I think it was not all in one piece, indeed a lot of its hide was missing. It was tired out and weary.' I suppose that life of an itinerant knight's pack horse was not an easy one!

The Hobby Horse comes in from the end of the thirteenth century and was a small horse or middle sized pony imported from Ireland.

The Stott was a cheap workhorse or ploughhorse.  Here's one from the Luttrell Psalter.