Monday, July 25, 2016

The Horse in Early Medieval Britain

By Elaine Moxon

In heraldry, the horse signifies readiness to act for one’s king and country or a readiness for duty. It is also a symbol of speed, intellect and virility. These attributes have their roots in very early history. Our affinity with this beast resonates throughout our pre-history. In Sub-Roman Britain our Celtic ancestors were riding horses as well as using them to pull chariots, which were themselves symbols of speed and agility. At Sutton Hoo there is a wealth of grave goods highlighting the importance of horses in Saxon noble culture from the 5th Century onwards (gilt-bronze decorated bridles, bran tubs, horses as symbols on metalwork and ceramics such as Pagan cremation urns, bow-brooches, footplates).

Sutton Hoo helmet
Picture courtesy of A.J. Pilkington

Detail of Sutton Hoo helmet
Picture courtesy of A.J. Pilkington

Aside from burials, archaeological evidence does exist to support horses used in Anglo-Saxon warfare between 650 – 899AD, although there are some who continue to dispute this. Wooden saddles and a step-rope for mounting (not a riding stirrup) were being used. The horse was incredibly useful as transport, scouting, a fast attack (as I used in my ‘Battle of Bathumtun’ in WULFSUNA) and, if an army came under siege, food. Whilst no direct evidence exists of warriors engaging in battle on horseback, that is not to say it could not have been the case and indeed, I made use of this grey area when writing my novel. Lack of archaeological evidence can often provide the writer room for fictional creativity!

Bede mentions the bearing of weapons and riding a stallion as ‘attributes of the elite male warrior class’ so to ignore this, even if it may be a social or cultural stereotype, would be to ignore at least an essence of the historical fact. Likewise, Sundkvist says the horse is ‘the most important animal of the Old Scandinavian cult’. They ‘played a part in sacrifices and divination, were emblems of sovereignty and symbolised a warrior-ideal’. To support these comments, an array of Old English words abound that refer to horses and their upkeep:
Stodfaldas – stud folds/paddocks
Stodmyra – stud mares
Stodhors – stud stallions
Stodðeofas – stud thieves
Hengest – stallion
Horsa – horse
Horsþegn – horse thegn/thane
There are also several mentions of the importance of horses in a variety of literature from, or in reference to, the Early Medieval period or thereabouts. These further substantiate horses as means of owning and showing wealth and a deeper spiritual connection with the divine. It is worth noting here that in Germanic culture white horses were linked to nobility and kingship, while red (chestnut) horses were linked to Frejya and fertility.

a saddle made fair with skill, adorned with gems...was the war-seat of the high-king.’~ Beowulf
(Horse) ‘is for leaders the joy of princes –
A steed proud in its hooves – where the hero
Wealthy in mounts exchanges speech –
And shall always be a comfort for the restless.’~ Old English Rune Poem, Exeter Book
Peculiar to that people, in contrast, is to try as well the portents and omens of horses: maintained at public expense in the groves and woods, they are white and untouched by any earthly task; when yoked to the sacred chariot, the priest and the king or leading man of the state escort them and note their neighs and snorts. To no other auspices is greater faith granted, not only among the common folk, but among the nobles and priests, for they see themselves as mere servants of the gods, but the horses as their intimates.’~ Tacitus (of horses and the Germanic people).
...all the blood from them was called hlaut (sacrificial blood), and hlautbolli, the vessel holding that blood; and hlauteiner, the sacrificial twigs (aspergills). These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and to serve as food at the banquet.’~ Snorri, Saga of Hákon the Good from Heimskringla
I know that I hung on the windy tree
For nine full nights, wounded with a spear, given to Oðinn,
Myself to myself,
On that tree of which no one knows
For nine full nights, wounded with a spear, given to Oðinn,Myself to myself,On that tree of which no one knowsWhere the roots run.’~ Hávamál, from Prose Edda

Yggdrasil Tree
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
That aforementioned tree is Yggdrasil, the World Tree connecting all the worlds in Norse (and Germanic) mythology. It is interesting to note that ‘Yggdrasil’ can be translated as Ygg’s Horse and ‘Ygg’ is another name for Odin. Odin, or the Saxon equivalent Woden, was the Chief of all the gods in later centuries (replacing Tiw as the all powerful leader of the gods). He of course rode ‘Sleipnir’ the famous eight-legged horse to enable him passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead, resonating with other cultures and legends like ‘Epona’. The same might be said of the mythical unicorn or Pegasus. All of these horse-like creatures link in some way to the divine and magical.

It is not uncommon to find that the eating of blood or flesh of animals, thought to be a link to the divine, is carried out as a way for people to connect with deities. For instance, on the Baltic island of Őland, hundreds of horse remains have been unearthed. The animals were stabbed for blood-letting and their bones split to remove the marrow. Feasts of horseflesh have also been uncovered from the Viking period at Lade and Maere in Trøndelag, Norway. In Denmark there are records of horse sacrifices every nine years, nine being a magical number for the Saxons and other Germanic people.

In conclusion, the Early Medieval age is steeped in horse mythology and the enduring image of warrior and horse irrevocably entwined; an image that would prevail for centuries after.


Seven Ages of Britain – Justin Pollard
A Nobleman Should be on a Horse’s Back – Stephen Pollington
Woden’s Warriors – Paul Mortimer

Additional Attributions

Yggdrasil Tree By Unknown - AM 738 4to, 44r. Digitized version available from Image processing (crop, erase etc.) by Skadinaujo (talk · contribs), Public Domain,

Elaine Moxon writes historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named ‘Wolf Spear’ are destined to meet.

She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine’s website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I didn't know that about Yggdrasil. I have read, somewhere, that the eight legs of Sleipnir represented the four pall bearers at a funeral. In other words, Odin was a death-related God. And then, there's Hengest and Horsa - a bit of a joke in the names of those two Saxon warriors. (In 1066 And All That, it was ,"Hengest and Horsa...or was that just Horse?"


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