Monday, November 2, 2015

Anglo Saxons and Their Horses

Part One 
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.

Welsh Pony
 (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 ....
     Eight war-horses
     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

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

Ann Hyland
  The Medieval Warhorse  Sutton Publishing 1994

Stephan Morillo
  Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings 1066 - 1135  Boydell Press 1994

Tim Severin:
  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

Book One


  1. This is a very interesting article. When I was researching for my novel, 'BELLÊME The Norman Warrior', King Harold did not use mounted horses at the battle of Senlac but kept the horses they did have at the rear, not to be used in the battle at all. Archers were not used at least not in any number.
    I think there is a needs for further investgation here.

  2. Next month Roy I'll be covering the horses of 1066 - but as a taster:the reason why Harold didn't use his horses was because they had been pushed to their limit being ridden to Stamford Bridge and back. (and as William found, it wasn't easy using horses on that hill!)

  3. Great piece Helen. When writing Wulfsuna I investigated sources for evidence of horses in combat and types of saddles. I'm currently looking at Icelandic ponies for a future story.

  4. Thanks Elaine - I haven't looked into this but I think the Icelandic and Exmoor ponies are very similar thick bushy mane, double-layer coat etc

  5. Thanks for some new sources for me to investigate!

    The observation about the Frisian horses, though, has to be taken with a pinch of salt (is this Anthony Dent?) ..."the modern Frisian"..."a breed of horse that was much valued in antiquity and remained highly prized in later Medieval times" was quite a different animal from the modern Friesian which was reinvented in the 17th C and again in the 20th.

    I'm making notes to chase up some of the Anglo Saxon information though, as my online museum ( is a little short in that area. Thanks.

    1. Good point Sue - although I would personally think that virtually every horse today is very different from anything known all those hundred years ago. I would rather compare horses back then to the type we know as a Frisian to a modern thoroughbred or a shire. i.e smaller than today's horses, stocky, hardy etc.

  6. Helen - Sue, It seems the Anglo Saxons did in fact import some equine bloodstocks from abroad, crossing them with their domestic breeds. According to Sarah Lariat Keefer in her book ‘Hwær Cwom Mearh? The Horse in Anglo-Saxon England’ they imported Arabian breeds from Frankia from the 960’s or perhaps even earlier.

    We know the Normans imported their bloodstocks from the Iberian penisular via the Arab Caliphate dominated south. Arabian Stallions and Mares: Kuhaylan El Adjus, Siglavy, Habdan, Hamdani and Obajan. Each of these breeds have distinct physical characteristics and when they crossed these Arabians with Percheron or Jennet you have your prized Normand Warhorse. I hope this info is helpful.

    1. Given that the Romans imported the 'Arabian' breed it seems logical that so did the Anglo Saxons and Normans. It is, of course, questionable as to when the Arab influence entered into the Welsh breeds (with features clearly distinctive even today) Some say from Roman times, others Saxon or Norman - others from horses washed ashore from the ships of the Spanish Armada. Take your pick of which one you fancy *laugh*.

  7. Fascinating article. I think the assumption that the Anglo-Saxons fought only on foot may come from the opening lines of The Battle of Maldon, in which Byrtnoth orders his warriors to send their horses away before advancing to battle. I've always assumed that he did this because the battleground was marshy and therefore unsuitable for cavalry; and/or the other side, the Vikings, were not mounted, so Byrtnoth disnmounted his own troops out of an heroic notion of fairness. If that seems unlikely, it is exactly the same sort of thing that he does when he allows the Vikings to reach dry land before engaging with them, rather than picking them off as they wade across the Blackwater.

    1. I entirely agree about the marsh land... and the honour side hadn't occurred to me, but I think you may well be right!


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