Thursday, February 6, 2014

Marocco - the Horse Accused of Witchcraft

by Grace Elliot

Marocco  performing with William Banks

In the 16th century there was a performing horse whose tricks were so clever that he was accused of witchcraft. The horse, Marocco, could count money, bow and courtesy, pick out different colours and even ‘Tell a maid from a maulkin’ [tell a virgin from a married woman] in the audience. Part of the horse’s appeal was his cheek as his trainer, William Banks, ordered Marocco to find him a chaste virgin and then a harlot from the crowd – indeed, the horse could even urinate on request!

Marocco’s story is also Banks’, for the latter started out as a groom in the Earl of Essex’s stables, and discovering he had a talent for horse training Banks sold everything, bought Marocco, and took him to London. The story goes that Banks had Marocco shod in silver, and his daring enterprise soon paid off as the horse quickly became a success. Some of the other tricks Banks taught Marocco was to dance on two or four legs, return a glove to a specific member of the crowd, bow to the Queen of England but not the King of Spain (England’s deadliest enemy), count the value of a coin with his hoof, and even play dead so effectively that members of the audience burst into tears.

Banks became a wealthy man but it’s possible the act was too good. When he went on tour, audiences in Shrewsbury and Oxford muttered about witchcraft, forcing Banks to return to London. In his absence London had changed, and novelty animal acts such as camels and elephants had moved in on his territory. In a publicity stunt Banks struck back by leading Marocco up the 1,000 step spiral staircase to the original (pre-fire of London) St. Paul's Cathedral to dance on the roof. Amazed, crowds stood in the street below staring up to see the horse “on top of Powles.”

'Old' Saint Pauls - destroyed during the Great Fire of London

In the search for new audiences Banks and Marocco travelled to France. The horse amazed audiences by picking out individuals based on the colour of their clothes – this was too much for the French and both horse and master were arrested on a charge of sorcery.

Under the threat of being burnt alive, Banks managed to convince the authorities of their innocence by asking Marocco to kiss a crucifix. After this, their accusers declared that the horse was inspired by the Holy Spirit and freed them both. Banks returned to England, and it is not known if Marocco was retired or died in harness. Mentions of the pair stop around 1606, and Banks never trained another horse but used the money accrued during his showman days to open a tavern.

So, was it truly witchcraft or how did Marocco learn his tricks?

After Banks retired and set up an inn, he agreed to share his secret with an early hippologist, Mr. Markham, as a testament to the intelligence of his horse. Markham devoted a chapter of his 1607 book Cavelaire to Banks and:

“an explanation of the excellence of a horses understanding and how to teach them to doe trickes like Bankes.”

It transpired that Banks bought Marocco as a foal, and from that day allowed no one else but him to exercise, feed, fuss or groom the colt. He treated the animal with great kindness at all times, and soon the horse started following his master like a dog. During training lessons, if Marocco performed well, he was rewarded with his favourite bread. If he did badly he was given no food that day in order to sharpen his attention on the following day.

Using this system of rewards Banks taught the horse to raise a foreleg on the command “Up!” and by raising and lowering a rod indicated how many times he was to strike his hoof.

‘Giving him a bit of bread til he be so perfit that, as you lift up your rod, so he will moved his foot to the ground.”

After Marocco's success other animal acts were
to follow.

Then Marocco learnt to do without the rod, becoming alert as soon as the word ‘Up!’ was mentioned.  Banks then used facial expressions to tell Marocco how often to stamp his foot.

“it is a rule in the nature of horses, that they have an especial regard to the eye, face and countenance of their keepers.”

Once this trick was perfected it was an easy step to ask the horse to tell him how many knaves or harlots were in the audience that day.

For tricks such as returning a glove to a member of the audience, Banks first taught Marocco to retrieve like a dog. Then he pointed his rod to an assistant and rewarded the horse for going to him instead. If he approached the wrong assistant Banks said “Be wise!” and once he chose correctly “So, boy!”  Eventually Marocco became so skilled he could do without the verbal commands and be guided solely by Banks’ face. As Markham, who had seen the act numerous times, remarked:

“Marocco never removed his eyes from his master’s face.”

No records exist of how Marocco ended his days but his story was the inspiration behind Sultan, the performing horse in my latest release, The Ringmaster’s Daughter.


Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. She lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage boys, one husband and a bearded dragon.

You can find out more about Grace and her books by visiting Fall in Love with History.


  1. How wonderful! Amazing what animals can be trained to do. Dressage, those dancing white stallions, horses trained to fall in movie battles... Wonderful stuff!

  2. Absolutely right, Sue. The training takes patience and kindness, a bit like cats - you can't force them to do anything.
    So glad you enjoyed the post.
    G x


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