Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Anglo Saxons and Their Horses (Part Two)

 By Helen Hollick

Continued from Part One :

As I mentioned in Part One: 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, Beowulf presented Hrothgar with four matching bays and three graceful horses, complete with brightly coloured saddles.

These references hint at several customs of this period: warriors of renown and wealth rode swift, quality bred animals; fighting on horseback was by no means unknown among the Anglo-Saxon people; import and export - or at least, widespread trade - was conducted, and horses of quality were the accepted currency of royal gifts.

Horses are often mentioned first in the tally of possessions due to the Crown as heriot.

"Heriot to the lord (the king) 200 parks of red gold, two silver cups and four horses, the best I have"

Wills illustrate the point as effectively:

"and I leave to the monastery .... 100 wild* horses and 16 broken stallions ... Will of Wulfric, a Mercian thane, 1002 (*unbroken i.e not trained to wear saddle and bridle or carry a rider)

Because of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the English fought on foot and the assumed superiority of the Norman cavalry eventually overcame the English, it has been generally accepted that William brought with him an entirely new method of warfare - mounted cavalry. 
Let's put this myth straight. 
He didn't.

That the English never fought on horseback is difficult to believe - Anne Hyland asks: "Why was so much emphasis put on the heriots of the ruling classes where warhorses had to be accompanied by the requisite saddle, burnie, helmet and weapons?”

 If the elite of the army merely used horses for riding to battle and then dismounting, any breed or category of horse would have sufficed. The smaller and sturdier the better, in fact. (Smaller 'native-bred' type ponies are much better doers than bigger domestic-bred horses.) It is also notable that William continued the same heriot levy, indicating that pre-conquest equine usage remained unchanged.

Another convincing argument that the pre-conquest English were familiar to warfare on horse-back is displayed by the occurrence of events during Earl Harold of Wessex's (later Harold II) visit to Normandy some few years before 1066. He and his retinue were invited to join in a campaign by Duke William in Brittany. As Anne Hyland emphatically points out, there is an extreme difference between sitting on a pony as transport, compared to the competent skills required in riding and fighting on a warhorse. "The latter requires a degree of confidence in one's own riding ability."

Had Harold not held this ability, there would have been no advantage in providing them with such animals, indeed they would have been a liability to William’s planned campaign – as well as looking prize fools to the Normans!

An incidental to add in here. 
'Corn-fed' horses. I have used this term in my novels and receive complaints from apparently outraged readers in the USA. 'Corn,' they state (occasionally rudely) 'is grown in America. Anglo-Saxon England was not aware of America until the fifteenth century.' (Actually even that can be debated, but not here!) Very patiently I point out the different UK use of the word 'corn'fed'. 

It does not mean corn-on-the-cob growing 'as high as an elephant's eye'. It is a British term for oats and barley i.e. grain for animal feed. A 'corn-fed' horse in Britain indicates a well-fed, fit, on-its-toes animal - also indicating a well-to-do owner who can afford to feed horses grain not merely hay and grass. Present-day racehorses and competition horses are 'corn-fed'; little Exmoor ponies which get fat even looking at a single oat are not!

Wild Exmoor Ponies being brought in from Devon's Exmoor
for the annual 'round-up'
Photo : Dawn Westcott
Must add: we now own one of those foals!
It seems likely that horses were used at Harold's victorious battle prior to Hastings at Stamford Bridge in September 1066. Although sagas cannot always be relied upon, the Saga of Snorri Sturleson, The Heimskringla, is accurate in its main points. The saga states that the English had cavalry and were not an infantry force. As a second point, Florence of Worcester states that Harold assembled a cavalry in order to repel a landing by his brother Tostig. Florence also mentions several other areas where cavalry were used: against Macbeth in 1054 and the Welsh in 1063.

Finally, a considerable number of Saxon-era horseshoes have been found at the scene of the battle. Harold went north at an unexpected speed. Fast travel wears horseshoes quickly, loosening the clenches (nails) that hold the shoes on securely, thus creating the easy loss, especially in fast manoeuvring or on churned and muddy ground, and events and terrain comparable to a battlefield. A horse accustomed to wearing shoes will quickly go lame. 

Again here as a horse-owner and rider: from experience I have noted that given correct care the native-bred ponies often don't need shoes while the domestic-bred horses do. The only reason our Exmoor pony has front shoes (he doesn't need backs) is because he is ridden on a surfaced road. Otherwise, without shoes his feet are fine.

And then there was the need to hurry back south – again pressing the horses. By early October the equine warhorse stock would have been beyond use. This may well dictate why Harold relied upon infantry at Hastings. Too many horses –those which had survived - would have been unfit and a significant number must have been lost. The Heimskringla states that weapons were aimed at the horses as much as the riders. This has always been the case in warfare. Unseat the mounted rider and incapacitate him.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts several instances of horses being violently overturned, one scene in particular, where a horse has his skull cloven by an axe, highly illustrates the severe loss of horses suffered by the Normans. Duke William himself had three horses killed from under him.

On that fateful day, October 14th 1066, Harold II, the rightful King of England, chose to face the Normans atop a ridge some seven miles from Hastings. Exactly where the ridge was located is immaterial. (There has been speculation that perhaps the present-day ‘Senlac Ridge’ as depicted by English Heritage where Battle Abbey now stands, may not be the precise spot of the English Shield Wall.) The point is, Harold defended the ridge in that nearby area – the only road from the coast to London went up and over that ridge. To one side was thick forest, to the other deep marsh. Harold had to deploy his men as infantry, not cavalry, but a man on foot is all too often vulnerable to a man on horseback. To be effective, Harold had to take the advantage – and he also had to know how to efficiently repel cavalry attacks. He could only have known this by personally possessing the knowledge and experience of how to fight on horseback. The English, therefore, without doubt, were efficiently skilled at defending against repeated cavalry charges - a skill that cannot be learnt by trial and error in the heat of battle, but acquired through previous experience.

Senlac Hill and the place of battle
Battle Abbey, Sussex
Had Stamford Bridge not happened, would Harold have chosen a different location to fight Duke William? Would he also have deployed his cavalry?

An would he, I wonder, have won?

This article was originally written as an essay in 1999 for a history degree course at Birkbeck College, University of London. The Tutor’s assessment read:

"This interesting essay covers an important area, which has been neglected. Æthelstan may have fought on horseback, while Cnut and Æthelred issued laws concerning the export of horses. The emphasis on Hastings, which was an important battle but an unusual one, has distorted our view of Anglo-Saxon warfare, as you demonstrate beautifully."
75%  8.3.1999 
J. Mountain B.Sc. B.A

Extra Mural Certificate:  A Distinction was awarded in 1999 on the basis of this essay and others.
Extra Mural Diploma:  I graduated the course in 2000 with Merit.
One day I might find the time to go on and finish the degree!

UK and US editions of my novel
of the events that led to
The Battle of Hastings, 1066
Helen's Website
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Buy from Amazon

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


  1. On the subject of domestic-bred horses needing shoes, mine are not shod, and never will be, we ride on roads and stony surfaces all the time, the more roadwork we do, the quicker the hoof grows. No shoes required :-)

  2. R.H.C. Davis covers similar ground in his 'Did the Anglo-Saxons have warhorses?' essay, WEAPONS & WARFARE IN ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND, 1989.I think your professor was parsimonious. I'd have given you 100%.


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