Friday, November 21, 2014

Jockies, Marshals and Knights

by Sue Millard

Horse power

If there is one facet of human endeavour that we cannot get away from as historians, it is people’s need to travel, and for many millennia their most rapid means of transport was the horse. 

Just as there were names for the types of horses and the jobs they were suited to, there were names for the people who used and worked with horses. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Smiths, Farriers and Marshals


The original sense of this word was apparently a craftsman, a skilled worker, not only in in metal but in wood or other material. Its origins lie in Common Germanic and Old English. In the Lindisfarne Gospel c 950AD, Matthew xiii. 55 has a gloss (translation between the lines) of Ah ne ðis is smiðes vel wyrihta sunu? (Is not this the carpenter’s or wright's son?)

By ~1300 the term "smith" had moved towards metalwork, eg in the Cursor MundiAls it war dintes on a steþi Þat smythes smittes in a smeþey. (As it were strokes on an anvil, that smiths smite in a smithy.) Although the alliteration is there for the sake of the poetry, it also gives us the clue that a smith is one who smites, who uses a hammer.

Smiths could also specialise in their own particular metals. Goldsmiths and silversmiths were recorded in around 1000AD and coppersmiths in the early 1300s, but tinsmiths (whitesmiths) not until the 19th century.

Black-smiths were workers of iron, and their trade included the making and mending of agricultural equipment, tools, and weapons. The 1248 Close Rolls of Henry III mention “Master Henry the Blacksmith”. They did not exclusively shoe horses, though no doubt every village blacksmith would provide this service simply because all local work and all passing trade was either on foot or on horseback.


A farrier, on the other hand, was entirely geared towards the care of horses and their shoeing. The old Latin term ferrārius was taken into Old French where it became ferrier, from the Latin for ferrum, iron.  In medieval Latin ferrum (often ferrus) meant a horseshoe. The Oxford English Dictionary surprised me here because I had thought the term might have been imported to England during the Norman period, but their first record of it is in 1562 in an Act of Queen Elizabeth I, where the farrier is defined alongside the blacksmith, as working in a parallel trade. 

The farrier was also the horse doctor: F. Markham, 1622: Five Decades Epist. of Warre  v. ii. §6An excellent Smith or Farryer who shall euer be furnished with Horse~shooes, nayles, and drugges, both for inward and outward applycations.


In fact, the Anglo-Norman word for a shoeing smith was not farrier but marshal, from marescal. It is much older than farrier, and in fact in 1086 it was recorded in the Domesday Book as a surname. At first it meant simply a person responsible for the upkeep of horses, especially their feet – the company’s mechanic, if you like – but by degrees, from its responsibility, it acquired other meanings, such as a high officer within a royal household. By 1213 it had become the term for a commander of cavalry in an army, and it has retained its military sense up to the present day.

Pages, Squires and Knights


In Anglo-Norman and Old French a page was a young male servant (c1225), a boy or  a youth generally of noble birth, who was attached to the service of a person of high rank (second half of the 14th cent.) His duties were domestic rather than warlike.


A squire was a young man of good birth attendant upon a knight, helping him to dress and put on armour. When they travelled or went to war, he led his master’s war horse, himself riding a rouncy (cob) and leading the destrier on his right while the knight rode a more comfortable and less aggressive palfrey.  Beket, in
The South English Legendary, c1300–1325 wrote:  For-to honouri þis holi man þer cam folk i-novȝ;..Of Eorles and of barones and manie kniȝtes… and of squiers. (People came to honour this holy man – earls and barons and many knights and squires.)

The spellings of this word can be very inventive, anything from skuyeris to swyers!


The Old English / Middle English cniht has links with the continental word knecht which has connotations of “young man” or “lad” – a servant, or someone active and fit to be a soldier. 1086,   Þænne wæron mid him ealle þa rice men..abbodas & eorlas, þegnas & cnihtas. (Then were with him all the rich men, abbots and earls, thegns and knights.)  

Knight – like the modern southern English colloquial use of “squire” – could also be extended to address a man, especially a male servant, of any age. This familiar usage existed alongside the better-known medieval feudal meaning, of a military man who served a king. A knight had gone through degrees of service, being first a page and then a squire, until he “won his spurs” as an acknowledged man of rank. The link with horses here is simply that the knight, being a military officer, needed fighting transport, and he relied on his squire to look after it.


Compared to all these ancient words, jockey, the quintessential horse term for a race-rider, is relatively modern, being recorded first in the early 16th C as iocky and in Shakespeare’s Richard III as iockey. 

I have seen assertions that it refers to 'Eachaidhe' in Gaelic, the word meaning “horsemen”, and pronounced yachey. However, there were much older Gaelic terms meaning horse – capall, rois (hros) and marc. And it seems unlikely that the language of an underclass (Irish or Scottish Gaels) would influence the language of an aristocracy who could afford to buy and keep horses solely for racing.

“Jocky” or “jockey” is more likely to be (as the OED states) John or Jack or Jacky: lowly people, serving boys; a term for  the “boy”, “the johnnie” or “the lad” who looks after the stable and other menial tasks, who is light and agile enough to be given the ride on the racehorses. We still hear an echo of this meaning in upper middle class phrases for a workman or employee, like “that window-cleaner johnnie”. It’s much like “a lad” in racing parlance, who is anyone who looks after racehorses – young or old, male or female, they are “lads” and only occasionally “lasses”!

The references in this article are culled from the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.


Sue Millard, in her pursuit of all things historical and equine, manages the Fell Pony and Countryside Museums web site,  Her book web site is Jackdaw E Books

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