Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Destrier

by Scott Howard

A knight’s destrier was as much a staple as his sword and armor. Without it he was virtually powerless and subject to a man at arms’ quicker spear thrusts or sword strokes - a soldier who would be more lightly armored. In combination, a knight and his destrier were lethal, operating in tandem with only the slightest prod of the knee or light gesture.

"Codex Manesse 052r Walther von Klingen (detail 2)" by Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) -, modified by BeatrixBelibaste. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Public Domain - From Wikimedia Commons

A destrier was not a breed of horse but a type of horse specifically bred for war. From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary its origins are: Middle English, from Anglo-French destrer, destrier, from destre right hand, from Latin dextra, from feminine of dexter. First Known Use: 14th century.1 The “right hand” may refer to the horse being led by a squire on a knight’s right side.

This breed of warhorse was typically a stallion with powerful hindquarters and a fearless disposition. They had to be able to turn on a silver penny with a nudge from the knee – the mounted knight typically had his hands full swinging a sword or mace and hefting a shield. Their iron-shod hooves could kill those on foot with a kick or flail of the feet. They were also known to bite those who happened to be too close. And the cries of battle and blood did not seem to faze them. Coupled with an armored knight, this created a dangerous war machine.

If you happen to visit a Renaissance Fair, the joust is the highlight of the day. After spending wads of cash eating turkey legs and other goodies, you find that watching two knights banter back and forth on huge draft horses relaxing. After trading insults for the benefit of the crowd, they close their visors then lumber down the field on a behemoth of a horse. This is the image we most often remember, but it is not the case. The truth is much more frightening.

Contrary to popular belief, the medieval knight was not mounted on a huge plodding draft horse like the famous Shire. By combining archaeological finds with pictorial evidence we can paint a picture of the typical Destrier as a very athletic short-backed horse not exceeding 15.2 hands in size. Medieval paintings often show horses in perfect collection with beautiful gaits, permitting the conclusion that the medieval warhorse was highly trained and extremely manoeuvrable.2

"Matthew Paris - William Marshal" by Matthew Paris - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here03:45, 26 March 2005 Dsmdgold 1565x762 (117701 bytes) ([[:en:William Marshall]] at a joust unhorses <a href="/w/index.php?title=Baldwin_Guisnes&action=edit" class="new" title="Baldwin Guisnes">Baldwin Guisnes]] in 1233. From the ''Historia Major'' of [[:en:Matthew Paris]], Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library, vol 2, p. 85. Scanned from ''Four Gothic Kings'', Elizabeth Hallam, ed. {{PD-art}}). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Public Domain From Wikimedia Commons

The horse was athletic, perhaps not as nimble as an Arabian stallion encountered by Crusaders in Outremer, but they were strong enough to carry an armored knight and maneuver around, punching through the press.  The truth is much more frightening, as stated before.  Together, an armored knight and an equally armored warhorse operate like a machine. The video below captures that thought.

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A Soul’s Ransom

Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.


  1. I would want a mount who trusted me as I trust him/her. A horse who is fearless as I would be. A charger who wouldn't shy at away in the face of the enemy, no matter how formidable they might be.

  2. // The “right hand” may refer to the horse being led by a squire on a knight’s right side.// Or more likely, the squire rode his stout cob with his own reins in his left hand and the reins of the knight's horse in his right hand, as being the more dextrous one (see what I did there?) for handling his master's more valuable mount.

    1. Why would a knight not hold his own reins? Shield and weapon I suppose?

    2. //Why would a knight not hold his own reins? Shield and weapon I suppose?//no, Debbie, it was because he was rich enough to have several horses. His squire rode a cob, and led the destrier until the knight needed it for battle. Destriers trotted (diagonal legs move together, left front with right hind, and vice versa) while the knight would travel on an ambler (lateral legs move together, left front and left hind and vice versa), which would be comfortable to ride compared with the destrier. Therefore he had at least 3 horses, 2 for himself (destrier for battle, palfrey or ambler for travel) and one for the squire. 1 - the palfrey was more comfortable, 2, riding the palfrey between locations kept the destrier fresh for battle.

  3. Good post. Thanks for countering the draft horse image. They wouldn't have been nimble enough for battle and can you imagine trying to feed them on campaign?

    Debra,on treks the destriers were usually led by the squire, while the knight rode a more comfortable horse.

  4. Interesting post. I tweeted for you!

  5. Thanks, Scott! Great post and I loved your video from "Kingdom of Heaven!"

  6. Interesting post, I may well share this one. If I may add my two cents- I heard heard that the common movie and fiction trope of a knight riding about on a destrier on all tie time is actually incorrect.
    #They were not suitable for everyday riding, I believe it had to do with their temperament.


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