Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Kingdom for a Horse: The Cost of the Equestrian Lifestyle in the Middle Ages

By Rosanne E. Lortz

It is the prince of palfreys. His neigh is like the bidding of a monarch, and his countenance enforces homage…. I once writ a sonnet in his praise and began thus: “Wonder of nature—”
--Shakespeare's Henry V  
A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
--Shakespeare's Richard III

Very few people (unless they happen to find themselves in the same sticky situation as Richard III did) would consider trading the kingdom of England for something as inconsequential as a horse. And yet, when the medieval horse is compared to something other than the inestimable value of a kingdom, it was in fact quite a costly item, and an item that added a great deal of consequence to its owner.

A thirteenth century treatise on horses states:
No animal is more noble than the horse, since it is by horses that princes, magnates and knights are separated from lesser people, and because a lord cannot fittingly be seen among private citizens except through the mediation of a horse. 
The owning of horses, and especially warhorses, was an essential part of being a medieval nobleman precisely because it was something far out of the reach of a simple peasant.

Steven Muhlberger, in his book Jousts and Tournaments, helps us understand the value of warhorses during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by looking at the records of the king’s compensation to men-at-arms for horses lost during a campaign. He says that, “the lowest value assigned to a warhorse was £5 and the highest £100.”

To put this in perspective, “a well-off English peasant family at the beginning of the century might earn just a little over £3 annually.” In order to qualify to become a knight, Muhlberger says that a landowner would need to make £40 a year. They were “an elite class that included at the very most 1500 men.

With warhorses being valued all the way up to £100, some of the noblest of the beasts would be worth more than a lower-level knight’s yearly income. The loss of a horse, therefore, would be a devastating blow to all but the wealthiest of men (meaning that a man would think twice about taking his horse into battle…unless the king was willing to compensate him if his horse was lost).

Detail of a horse from a medieval bestiary

Besides war, tournaments were another place where horses might be lost…or won. In many cases, the loser of the joust had to forfeit his horse to the winner.

Geffroi de Charny, one of the premier French knights of the fourteenth century, wrote a series of questions and answers dealing with the etiquette of the joust. Unfortunately, the answers (if they were ever written down) have been lost to posterity, but the content of the questions is still revealing.
2. If it happened that…one knight knocked another to the ground with a stroke of the lance, his saddle being between his legs and the whole thing off the horse, will he who knocked the other down win the horse? What do you say in this case, will it not be judged by the laws of arms?  
3. Knights are jousting without any formal announcement, and one knight knocks another down and out of the saddle with a stroke of the lance. Will he who knocked the other down win the horse? What do you say? 
5. In the emprise it is said that anyone who kills a horse with a stroke of a lance will pay for it. So it happens that in jousting one strikes the other’s horse with his lance well advanced; but their horses collide so hard that both of them fall to the ground. Will he who struck the horse with the lance pay for it or not? What do you say? 
8. A banneret sends out from his entourage some knights to go out with him in the fields to joust with those who have set the emprise; …If there are two or three of them whose horses are dead and injured in the joust from blows or falls, will the banneret be obliged to compensate them? What do you say?
From reading just a short sampling of these questions, a common theme emerges—the theme of who deserves to win a horse and who is required to compensate for a horse’s loss. In fact, out of the twenty questions centered around jousting, nineteen of them deal with these equestrian issues. Charny’s questions, designed to standardize judicial rulings in the “law of arms” at tournaments, reinforce the idea of just how consequential the possession—and loss—of a horse could be.

A medieval warhorse might not have been worth an entire kingdom, but he was still worth a tidy chunk of change. And since the consequence of owning a horse was not something the nobler classes would willingly do without, it was essential for kings to recompense knights when horses were lost and for tournament law to clearly explain when a horse would be forfeit.

The horse was the ultimate status symbol in the later Middle Ages. Shakespeare's scene in Henry V describing "the prince of palfreys" was clearly written to poke fun at the French prince...and yet, knowing how valuable horse of this period actually were, one can almost understand why the Dauphin once “writ a sonnet” in praise of his horse, whose “neigh is like the bidding of a monarch” and whose “countenance enforces homage.”


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a story set during the turbulent opening of the Hundred Years' War. It features the two premier knights of the fourteenth century from different sides of the Channel: Edward, the Black Prince, and Geoffroi de Charny.


Muhlberger, Steven. Jousts and Tournaments: Charny and the Rules for Chivalric Sport in Fourteenth Century France. Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002.


  1. Great entry, Rosanne! I would add, however, it wasn't all about prestige. The term "armour" in the military context comes from the effectiveness of armoured knights in combat. From Hastings to Hattin, the charge of medieval armour was the equivalent of the panzer attacks of the Wehrmacht in WWII. Admittedly, by the 100 years war, the British had learned how to counter the cavalry attack with well deployed archers, but the tradition of a knight being a mounted soldier was based not merely on status but on genuine military utility.

    1. Yes, of course, Helena! Thanks for the clarifying comment.