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.


Jan Jones said...

I needed a whole mug of tea to read through this post!

Excellent stuff.

Will be looking out for Ebon...

Carla said...

What a lovely word 'rouncy' is.

Why do ambling palfreys move in that way? Is it inherited, or are they trained for it?

Heartbeatoz said...

Very interesting reading about all the different types of Horses used for various activities.

Anne Gilbert said...

Your essay is pretty important to me, because horses, along with a particular type of cat, play important parts in my own story. When I first started researching the "medieval" part of my book, I came across descriptions(and pictures) that suggested medieval destriers anyway, were built rather like modern Appaloosas, and were approximately the same size. They were also similar in build to a lot of the modern mustangs of the West, and also some other types of horse, such as the modern Spanish breeds(surprise, surprise, since Spanish horses were quite valuable in "them days"!
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...

Yes, it's very detailed. I like that. I'm looking forward to Ebon, too. BTW, I had a cat called Ebon once. I wonder if Hugh Bigod ever regarded cats in anything like the way we do now. Probably not, though.
Anne G

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Just ONE mug of tea Jan? It took me ten to write the thing LOL! And I've added to it!

Carla, yes, I do enjoy some of the forgotten words. I've added a couple of others since the blog went up - a hobby horse and a stott.
I can't answer your pacing question. I have no idea whether they are born to it or trained to it.
Tim Severin's Crusader, By Horse to Jerusalem gives a detailed description of what it's like to ride one - very smooth apparently.
Anne, I've added a couple of minor bits since the first posting. Hyland is particularly good on destriers. Small, stocky horses, seems to have been the order of the day - as in 15 hands was considered well grown.
I have done a session where Hugh interracted with a cat. He was a little boy at the time and was tormenting it, but his father, Roger, soon set him to rights - more because it was a prime mouser and worth good money it has to be said, but he also taught his son the value of life on that occasion too and Hugh was a fast learner. Cats as such were seen as pretty expendable. Their skins were worn by the lower echelons of society. There's a painting by Hyronymous Bosch that shows a common pedlar with a tabby catskin attached to his sales basket!

Diana Cosby said...

I really enjoyed your blog/break down. I'm definitely saving your post for reference. Thank you! How long did it take you to research everything? Or, when you decided to blog on the topic, did you begin to keep notes? Hope you have a great weekend.


Anne Gilbert said...

I want to thank EC for her comments on cats. That's pretty much what I thought(that their value was pretty much as mousers). And the cat in my story is a good hunter all right, but she and her offspring are, well, pretty special in certain ways. BTW, from what I read, my idea of destriers of this time was pretty much on the mark. But now I'm wondering, because I haven't given this much thought, what about all these other horse types? Were palfreys, for example, bigger, the same size, or smaller than destriers? Just curious.
Anne G

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Diana, glad the post was of use.
I've always had an interest in horses in the period about which I write, so it's been ongoing study for a number of years. I've written articles for various publications on the subject before. So no, I didn't take notes because a lot of it was in my head. It just needed rationalising on screen and I had the reference works on hand to check back on and cite - although finding an 'equus of Lombardy' in King John's Pipe roll was a new discovery - one I am really pleased about because it's primary source proof. I guess the blog took about an hour and a half in all to write, but split over two evenings.
Anne, good question. The Museum of London book, The Medieval Horse and its equipment suggests that the overall generic height for medieval horses was around thirteen and a half hands. There's an appendix in the book with discussion of samples and diagrams - but no indication as to the function of the horse because obviously the archaeologists are dealing with skeletal remains.

Anne Gilbert said...

13½ hands sounds like a reasonable size for an earlier medieval horse, at least to me. From what I've read of this time period, they seem to have "run small" generally. That would be almost "pony" size today. That makes me feel better, because such instincts as I have about such things, suggest I was on the right track about horse size, and that's pretty much the way I've been writing the horses in my book. BTW, I think I'm going to check around for that Hyland book. It sounds pretty useful, considering I don't know a whole heck of a lot about horses.

The Tome Traveller said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have been reading historical fiction for years (yours too!), it is my favorite genre, and I had a general understanding of medieval horses (enough to follow the story and not run to look anything up!)

I find that my imagination works so much better when I have background knowledge like this...it adds another layer to the story for me, makes it more real.


Anne Gilbert said...


Having knowledge of something is always enriching when you read something, whether or not it is historical fiction. I read a lot of genres -- including historical, and incloveuding Ms. Chadwick's -- though I'm more of a science fiction fan myself. Be that as it may, for the book I'm writing -- a blend of history and "romantic" science fiction, I did a fair amount of "horse research" and discovered many of the same things as Ms. Chadwick. But there were a lot of things I didn't know, and her book recommendations are something I'm about to look into.
Anne G

Jenn said...

Elizabeth, a very nice run down of the types of horses from the middle ages. It's been a particular area of study for me for the past 12 years.

I find that Ann Hyland is very good with details on horses from the East, it is her area of specialty both as a writer and a breeder of Arabian horses, however I find her to be not as strong on the Western European aspects.

"The Medieval Horse and its Equipment: 1150 - 1450" (Clark) gives basic sizes. However, most folks take as gospel what Hyland says, when Clark cautions that of the extant remains for medieval horses, that the sample was too small to draw any definitive conclusions about height. There is no conclusive evidence that suggest that the horses found in the burial pits are of a specific type so assigning heights can be problematic.

Horse sizes could range from 12 to 16 hands as the Medieval and Tudor burial ground show us. One horse from the burial pits was recorded to be 16.25 hands. That's a big horse, my mare is 16.1.

I don't know if they've conducted further research on the remains found in the medieval/tudor burial pits. I know that the muscle and skeletal structure does vary based on activity: riding vs. pulling. I am unaware of any battlefield finds, which would give a more accurate accounting of horses ridden in combat.

Until the late Middle Ages, the preferred mount of a knight was a stallions in combat. In the late Middle Ages, middle to end of the 15th century, geldings enter the mix. René II, was recorded to have ridden a mare, but you rarely find this to be the case. Charles the Bold had a horse named Il Moro, named for his color and place of origin. They also indicated that he was "small".

Carla, amblers could be born to it or trained to it. If one reads the "Propertyees of Medicyn for Hors", there is a section that discusses "teaching a horse to amble". I've later seen it depicted in some renaissance manuscripts. Icelandic ponies "tolt" which is a type of amble.

The current view is that palfreys were fine riding horses. Typically viewed as smaller. Destriers were bigger, by how much? Who knows.

Anne Gilbert said...

Jenn and all:

Yeah, 16 hands is pretty big for a horse, but a lot depends on the breed or type. I'm not talking ponies here -- just "regular" horse breeds. Horses that are primarily ridden, AFAIK, kind of run in the middle of the size range, as far as I can tell. But, as far as I can tell, the horse types of the earlier medieval period weren't all that big, and destrier-type warhorses were the biggest, but apparently even that wasn't all that big. However, in the later Middle Ages, they may well have bgeen bred bigger for certain purposes(and again, I don't mean farm horses here), so if this 16 hh horse remains you're talking about was from the latter period, I'm not too surprised.
Anne G

Jenn said...

I think you will find oddities height-wise in every time period. One knight said that if you were to err on the side of having a larger or smaller horse, err toward the larger.

There is a distinct advantage in melee. ;-)

I still think that the lack of a lot of extant remains makes it difficult to assign heights, however, I concur that 14 hands is probably closer for 12th c - 13th c. In the 15th the Italians were breeding larger horses, but for all we know, this may be more like a heavy hunter. Definitey not the horses we see in the show rings or the draft horses used in many modern jousts. My mare looks like the horses in René d'Anjou's Book of the Tournament. She's cobby, but not overly so.

I think the Iberians and Andalusians are a good modern equivalent of what a early destrier might have been like.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Jenn, thanks for dropping by; you raise some interesting points. It would be useful to have battlefield finds of horse skeletons wouldn't it!
Interesting about amblers being taught to amble too. It does seem that the most prized warhorses came from Lombardy. They are mentioned with admiration in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, and also, as discovered, in the Pipe rolls as gifts and bribes. Horses of Spain and Sicily are also mentioned as warhorses in the Histoire 'chevals d'Espaigne, de Lombardie e de Ceszire.
The Histoire makes a point of mentioning William Marshal having a tall riding horse at one point and that it was valuable. Does one assume from this that big horses were worth more? 'un grant cheval de pris.'
The Andalusian comes in 2 types. I would say the Villanos type is the one that most resembles a war horse type from the 11th-13thc. I also still plump for a stocky version of the American Quarter horse because in steer roping, coupled with agility and short bursts of speed - and size - it has all the attributes.

Jenn said...

Hi Elizabeth,

It would be nice if someone actually found a decent source for remains. In the burial pits I mentioned (they span quite a bit of time), it could be anything. The remains might also be different from the horses on the Continent from the same time frame.

Hmmm...I'm uncertain if larger horse equals greater value. I always approached it from the point that all horses for knights and princes alike, were of great value due to the difficulty of replacing them if they were killed or captured. Remounts were not inexpensive.

A horse's color could be more highly valued. Grays were more popular in certain centuries than others. In the late 15th century gilt mouthed bays were at the top of the list and grays farther down, but there were other qualities as well.

I'll have to wait until I get home to find the properties for judging a horse by its color and characteristics. Value often greatly depends on the aesthetic of the time period in question.

I have found that if a horse was mentioned, it was due to a uncommon or very noticeable trait like height, color, or where the horse was from.

Eduarte I of Portugal talks about horses from Ireland and other locations from Europe at the beginning of the 15th century.

Ah, American Stock QH. My husband's horse is a cross with old style stock QH. He's incredibly agile and fast for a 17 hand horse.

Eustache Deschamps, has a Chansons Royale that I'm trying to locate that talks about the different types of horses. He's 14th century though.

There's also a book or article that I need to find (my husband mentioned it to me in passing) about a great disaster that all but wiped out the horse herds in the early middle ages. Which could definitely affect the value.

Sorry...I'm rambling. :)

Anne Gilbert said...

Jenn, Elizabeth, and all:

Well, like I said, in the earlier period, the horses seem to have been smaller, maybe 14 hands at most. I know this seems small, but OTOH, bits and horseshoes and other stuch things seem to suggest a smaller horse. I think Elizabeth Chadwick has a point that there may have been size variations, and that knights went for taller and bigger horses if they could, but tallness and bigness are probably relative. I am speaking mainly of the 10th-13th centuries here, not later, as it seems they started breeding bigger horses then. Also, like Elizabeth, I think my idea of a medieval destrier(of this period anyway), would be fast and at least somewhat muscular. If either of you or anybody else has see American mustangs, this, to me, is fairly close to the type, though as Elizabeth suggests, quarter-horse types(for speed and agility would be good candidates(and yes, the Andalusian horses, as well as some others; I wont go into the list here).
Anne G

Pamela Keeley said...

I think you are spot on with the mustangs. But check out the few remaining Spanish Mustangs that have been kept apart and finally pedigreed in registries since the early 20th century.

These are as free from modern influence, particularly TB as can be found together and remarkably resemble the medieval illustrations. Cowboys divided them into 2 types, a stockier type they called Northern and a lighter they called Southwestern. /Users/pamela/Desktop/huntingbuffalo.jpg lighter

See Spanish Mustang Registry for more examples of the stocky type preferred by cowboys that were the foundation for QH.

Pamela Keeley said...

PS many of the Spanish Mustangs are gaited. Greatly prized and legendary for Vaquero, Cowboy and Native American.
I have several who got the gaited gene. I can attest how smooth they are and they can stay in that gait for days traveling. The basis for the Missouri Foxtrot horse.

And sorry to say Hyland's research is heavily slanted towards A
rabs. Much of it is just plain wrong, but as the only book out there she tends to get taken as gospel.