by Helen Hollick
Until recently, it was widely accepted that Anglo-Saxon armies consisted solely of infantry formation, horses being used only for transportation. But as Ann Hyland points out, "...this seems a complete waste of potential energy and resources" suggesting that while it is unthinkable that entire armies were mounted, wealthier men were more than capable of undertaking mounted fighting and of utilising the horse in a variety of offensive tactics, as circumstances of battle, terrain etc., dictated.
Mounted warfare during the Anglo-Saxon period is shown in sculpture and referred to in manuscripts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937 is a record of Aethelstan's triumph over the Scots - the corresponding Croyland Chronicle on this campaign is very clear: "... and Singin unhorsed the Scottish king."
The Native British pony (the present-day breeds of Welsh, Fell, Dales, Exmoor etc.,) were enhanced during the Roman occupation by the cross breeding of new stock and bloodlines, introduced into Britain through cavalry regiments raised from countries holding established equestrian cultures and known for breeds of superior quality. The most priced war horses being the Frisian, Burgundian and Thuringian. These Roman imports would have rapidly improved British stock by adding height, bulk and speed to the already established stamina, intelligence and ability to survive a poor winter climate and sparse food. Britain had - and still has - a rich wealth of these strong and hardy ponies, some around the 12 - 13 h.h. (hands high) mark, others reaching 14.2 h.h. It is significant that the modern day Fell and Dales breeds resemble the modern Frisian, a breed of horse that was much valued in antiquity and remained highly prized in later Medieval times.
|Exmoor Pony 12.2 hands *|
a breed thought to be more
than 2000 years old
Some degeneration of breeding must have occurred as the Anglo-Saxon period initially developed, once deprived of the organised resources of knowledge and trade of the Roman administration and army. But horses were still required, if not for riding, then as pack ponies and vehicle pulling. References to horses and riding run throughout the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and are scattered among the Welsh laws of Hywel Dda (died 950) reflecting the importance of the equine among Welsh society.
(Section C 13.2 hands *)
Giraldus (c1146 - 1223) comments that the Welsh interest in life consists of "caring for their horses and keeping their weapons in good order" and that their leaders "ride into battle on swift mettlesome horses."
Bede (died 735) relates an anecdote about Bishop Aiden, who apparently gave a gift from King Oswine, a well bred horse, to a beggar. Annoyed, the king exclaimed that a common bred horse was the more suitable offering. The love of racing among young clerics was also remarked upon by Bede.
The laws of King Ine (688 - 726) comment that the horse-wealh was held in high regard, and that he had charge of the king's stud. The position of horse-weard, the watcher of the king's horses, is also mentioned. He appears also in Æthelberht's laws (860-6). These references suggest that the horse-wealh managed a self-contained stud, where controlled breeding was practised, while the "free-range" system, stallions running freely with mares, were under the management of the horse-weard.
There are indications of the size of such studs under the Welsh laws and Anglo-Saxon wills. A brief reference from the time of Athelstan (924 - 39) mentions that he had received as a gift, 300 fine coursers and their trappings. This more than adequately shows the extent of a king's wealth in horse-flesh and implies that acquiring new blood and different breeds occurred much earlier than assumed. Previously it has been accepted that serious horse-breeding and the introduction of quality stock was a result of the Norman Conquest.
|Adult riding an Exmoor|
Kathy Hollick Blee riding aside
(permission of copyright granted)
Horses appear in several references in the poem Beowulf written between 680 - 800. Racing is mentioned as Danish warriors spur their bay horses renowned for speed and stamina and:
"Then, as a sign of victory, Hrothgar, son of Healfdene
Presented to Beowulf ....
With glancing bridles, one with a saddle
Studded with stones - battle seat of the Danes."
Not to be outdone by the generosity of Hrothgar's gift, Beowulf presents four matching bays and three graceful horses, complete with brightly coloured saddles.
* a hand - unit of measurement 1 hand = 4 inches
* a hand - unit of measurement 1 hand = 4 inches
PART TWO – THE HORSES OF 1066 - click here
Anthony Dent and Daphne Machin Goodall
A History of British Native Ponies J.A.Allen 1988
(first published 1962 under the title of The Foals of Epona)
Julian Glover (adaptation from translation by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan)
Beowulf Alan Sutton 1987
The Medieval Warhorse Sutton Publishing 1994
Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings 1066 - 1135 Boydell Press 1994
Crusader - By horse to Jerusalem Hutchinson 1989
Dorothy Whitlock ed and Trans
Anglo-Saxon Wills Oxford University Press 1930
I explore the use of horses in the post-Roman period quite extensively in my Arthurian Pendragon's Banner Trilogy