08 June, 2008

Horses in seventh-century England

Did the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) ride horses? Evidence comes from both documentary and archaeological sources.

Documentary evidence

Several mentions in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, indicate that riding horses was considered to be normal for royalty and bishops:

…..[The chief priest] asked the king to give him arms and a stallion – for hitherto it had not been lawful for the chief priest to carry arms or to ride anything but a mare – and thus equipped he set out to destroy the idols. Girded with a sword and with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king’s stallion….

--Bede, Book II, Ch. 13

…whether in battle or on a peaceful progress on horseback through city, town and countryside, the royal standard was always borne in front of him.
--Bede, Book II, Ch. 16.

[King Oswin] had given Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey, although the bishop ordinarily travelled on foot. Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse, with all its royal trappings, to be given to the beggar […]
When this action came to the king’s ears, he asked the bishop “My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use? Have we not many less valuable horses or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specially selected for your personal use?”
--Bede, Book III, Ch. 14

In the poem Beowulf, the coastguard who challenges Beowulf and his followers when they first arrive in Hrothgar’s kingdom is mounted on a horse:
Hrothgar’s thane, when his horse had picked
Its way down to the shore, shook his spear
Fiercely at arm’s length, framed the challenge

--Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander

War-horses are among the gifts given by Hrothgar to Beowulf for the slaying of Grendel:
The king the ordered eight war-horses
With glancing bridles to be brought within walls

--Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander

According to the Life of Wilfrid, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and his army of horsemen (equitatus exercitus) won an important battle against the Picts in 672.
--(Halsall 2003, citing Eddius Stpehanus’ Life of Wilfrid).

Archaeological evidence

Horse bones occasionally turn up as grave-goods in early English cremation burials. For example, the cremation burials in Mounds 3 and 4 at Sutton Hoo both included pieces of horse bone (Carver 1998). Such bones clearly confirm that horses were present in early England, but cannot show what they were used for. They could indicate that horses were ridden, used to pull vehicles, eaten, or any combination thereof.

Confirmation that horses were ridden and were associated with the warrior class comes from three spectacular burials discovered in East Anglia. Mound 17 at Sutton Hoo, the only grave mound at Sutton Hoo to be discovered intact besides the famous ship burial, was excavated in 1991 and found to contain the body of a young man buried with a sword, two spears, a shield and various other items, and the body of a horse complete with bridle and reins. (More details in a later post). The horse was part skeleton and part sand-body*, and sufficiently well preserved to show that it had been a thick-set male about five or six years old and standing about 14 hands tall.

Two other inhumation burials, each containing a man buried with weapons and a horse, were excavated at RAF Lakenheath in 1997 and 1999. The horse in the 1997 burial was also about 14 hands, and was reconstructed (along with his rider) for a BBC documentary. The burial was dated to around 550 AD. The second Lakenheath horse was a little smaller and slighter, standing about 13 hands and aged about eight or nine years, and also dated to the sixth century.


Bede’s story about the chief priest indicates that (a) the king rode a stallion; (b) the chief priest was clearly a capable rider, since he was able to ride and manage it; (c) there was a rule about the type of animal a chief priest could ride, which implies that he was expected to ride. Now, Bede’s account was written down a century after the event and may or may not be an accurate reflection of real happenings – though I would hesitate to claim that we know more than Bede did about his country’s recent history. It does demonstrate that in the eighth century Bede, and/or his source, thought that kings and priests rode horses in the seventh.

Similarly, Bede’s story about King Oswin and Bishop Aidan, which takes place some time in the 640s, shows clearly that the king owned and rode horses, expected a bishop to do likewise, and considered a horse to be an important and valuable gift. The Beowulf poet, and presumably the poem’s audience, also considered war-horses to be a suitable gift for a high-ranking warrior.

The mounted coastguard in Beowulf indicates that it was expected that at least some soldiers would ride in the course of carrying out their duties. The explicit reference to Ecgfrith’s army as “horsemen” suggests that quite large bodies of mounted warriors could be assembled for campaigns in distant territories (Ecgfrith’s army was invading Pictland, the area north of the Forth-Clyde valleys in modern Scotland). Whether they fought on horseback as cavalry, or were ‘mounted infantry’ who rode to battle and then dismounted to fight, or both, is a moot point, and a subject for another post.

The horse burials from East Anglia support the documentary evidence that at least some warriors owned and rode horses, and also give us an idea of what such horses might have looked like. All three were quite small, and would be considered ponies by modern standards (a pony is defined as a horse smaller than 14.2 hands). They must have been quite strong and sturdy to carry the weight of an adult man and his equipment, which is consistent with the Sutton Hoo horse being described as “thick-set”.

Perhaps they resembled some of the sturdy British ponies still around today, such as the Fell Pony or the Highland Pony, also called a garron. These breeds are about the same size as the horses in the burials. They have been used for centuries in the uplands of England and Scotland, both for riding and for carrying heavy loads over long distances. Fell ponies heaved ore over the mountains from the Lake District mines, for example, and Highland ponies are still used today on some estates to carry the stags down after a successful stalk. When trying to imagine what an English warrior’s horse might have looked like in the seventh century, I should think one could do a lot worse than start with the Fell Pony.

So, I think we can be fairly sure that the answer to the question, “Did the early English ride horses?” is “Yes”, at least for the military and religious elite. To what extent this applied to the rest of society is a different, and trickier, question.


Halsall, Guy. Warfare and society in the barbarian West, 450–900. Routledge, 2003, ISBN 0415239397.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin, 1973, ISBN 0-14-044268-5

* Sand bodies were a feature of the 1990s excavation at Sutton Hoo. The acid sandy soil of the site sometimes interacts with a decaying body to leave a fragile crusty surface outlining the original surface of the body. These can be rather macabre, reminiscent of the plaster casts of the bodies at Pompeii. See Martin Carver’s book for pictures.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Those ponies look a bit like the Icelandic horse which has been kept pure and is a fine example of Medieaval allround horses.

Btw, Icelanders rode to battle but fought on foot. And they bred stallions especially for horse fights.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Gabriele's comment that "Icelanders rode to battle but fought on foot" would appear to apply to the Anglo-Saxons too, if "The Battle of Maldon" is anything to go by (although it's 10th century, not 7th): "Then he [Birhtnoth, the English earl] commanded each of his warriors to leave his horse, drive it far away, and walk forward, trusting in his hands and in his good courage...Then Birhtnoth began to place his men at their stations; he rode about and advised them, taught the troops how they should stand and hold the place and bade them grasp their shields aright, firm in their hands, and have no fear. When he had arranged his folk properly, he alighted among them where it seemed best to him, where he knew his retainers to be most loyal."

I remember having a rather heated argument about this with Helen Hollick (author of "Harold the King") at the English Heritage Battle of Hastings re-enactment event at Battle in East Sussex a few years ago. At any rate Helen got heated when I trotted this out. She disagreed but couldn't produce any evidence to the contrary, save a footnote in a book by Ann Hyland ("The Medieval Warhorse", I think) about a load of horseshoes dug up in a field near Stamford Bridge. I was happy to leave it that maybe sometimes they fought on horseback and sometimes they didn't, but she was adamant that they always fought on horseback, Birhtnoth notwithstanding (try saying that after a snifter or two!).

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, there are enough examples in the sagas that no one would argue against this habit in Iceland. Though the question remains to what extent it represents the saga time (9th century) or the time they were written (12/13th century). Considering the way fighting on horseback is presented as something new in the translated epics I'd say it still was not common in the 12th century. That is why I have Roderic ask my Norseman Kjartan where he learned to fight on horseback.

Bernita said...

Burial evidence of certain chariot types - as opposed to common carts - would, by their very presence, also suggest horses.

Annis said...

Like a lot of people I also had the impression that the Anglo-Saxons didn't fight on horseback, but rode to battle and then fought on foot, but a while ago I read this article by Daniel Mersey, which puts the case for Anglo-Saxon cavalry.
It's interesting to read your take on the subject, Carla.

Rick said...

Dumbest question first, had there been question about the early English riding horseback? (In general, not fighting mounted.)

The use of horses as 'battle taxis' is interesting, because it parallels the question of Homeric chariotry, and whether it is the Mycenaeans, Homer, or us who don't understand chariot warfare.

Riding to battle and fighting on foot makes perfect sense if you're trained to fight as infantry, and rich enough to own a horse.

Nothing to do with horses, and this may be old news, but on another forum I read indications that AS Lundenwic may go back further than previously supposed. Apparently three prosperous AS burials there have been dated to between AD 410 and 550.

The article cautiously adopts the latest date, but the early one would mean that there was a thriving English, or at any rate proto-English town rising alongside declining but presumably still urbanized Londinium, even before Honorius pulled the plug.


Carla said...

Gabriele - They do, don't they? Given the amount of Norse settlement in the far north and north-west of Scotland and in north-west England, maybe the Fell Pony and Highland pony have a bit of Icelandic pony in them, and vice versa. A tough all-purpose workaday horse would have been useful.

Sarah, Gabriele - as usual, the problem arises in trying to extrapolate from the particular to the general. Brythnoth certainly fought on foot at Maldon, as did most of Harold's army at Hastings, because we have detailed accounts that say so. Whether this just reflects the circumstances of these particular engagements or can be extrapolated to a general case is a different question. Ditto with the comment in Life of Wilfred about Ecgfrith's army of horsemen - normal practice, or a special case? I can come up with special case reasoning for any of these: Harold was defending a hilltop position and providing it stands firm an infantry shield-wall is pretty effective as a defence against cavalry especially if the cavalry have to charge up hill; Brythnoth sent the horses away to prove that he and his nobles weren't going to leg it to safety if anything went wrong (and someone ratted on that and was duly castigated in the poem); Ecgfrith was fighting the Picts who certainly used cavalry and perhaps it was logical to meet like with like.
It's worth remembering that the term "Anglo-Saxons" gets applied to anywhere from Kent to Northumberland and over a period from the fifth century to 1066, as if 'Anglo-Saxon England' was a monolithic block that didn't change for half a millenium. I very much doubt that was the case. I would expect variations in place and over time, depending on the economy (horses cost money to breed and feed), cultural factors, and probably also changes in fashion and individual preferences. Not to mention the dislocation of the Danish incursions from the late ninth century. And even in a given time and place not everyone would have had the same skills.
Logically, a professional military elite that could use a range of strategies and skills as required would be more flexible, and hence more likely to be effective and successful, than one that could only do one thing. But some skills might be confined to the elite, who had the time and money for equipment and training, or present at only a low level in the bulk of the population. Taking a modern analogy, pretty well every adult in a modern Western country can drive an ordinary car on a road. But only a small percentage have the skill to drive a Formula 1 car very fast round a racetrack or to manouevre a Land Rover up a dodgy mountain track in heavy snow. You might imagine something similar in an early medieval society that used horses widely for transport; every adult could jog along to market (or to battle) on horseback because that was a skill that was needed every day, but the number who had the specialist skills to fight from horseback would be much lower.

I'd be hesitant to claim "always" or "never" given the patchy evidence base. For example, the three horse burials come from East Anglia - is this coincidence, local fashion in burial practice, or because the East Angles were keen on horses in the 6th and 7th century and the other kingdoms weren't? It could be any or all. For what it's worth I'd say it's likely that 'sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't', i.e. tactics and techniques varied according to circumstances.

Iceland is a different case, because the sagas add up to quite a large body of material. Though as Gabriele says, you can argue over whether it reflects the date of the setting or the date of composition! Nevertheless, it seems clear enough that Icelandic society used horses for transport (and stallion fighting, which was presumably something like cock fighting) and didn't go in for cavalry.

Bernita - possibly, though chariot horses can be different from riding horses, and chariots seem to be more of an Iron Age thing.

Annis - I came across Daniel Mersey's article a while back, and he makes an interesting case. I don't think he's actually very far from my view, that the military professionals could probably use a variety of techniques.

Rick - I don't know the position among experts in the field, but yes, it was (still is) certainly a popular perception that the early English were useless with horses. I have even seen it claimed that English armies marched everywhere on foot and Harold's dash to and from Stamford Bridge either didn't use horses (in which case you have to marvel at the average guy's fitness) or was an exception. I don't know its provenance but I would suspect two sources: (a) for imagined contrast with King Arthur's Knights in the early period and the Norman Knights at the end; (b) part of the lumpen-barbarians-in-mud-huts view of the so-called 'Dark Ages'. There may be some modern snobbery tangled up in it too, as horse-riding is perceived (note that word 'perceived') as an upper-class activity. I have also read some statements that the mid-6th-century Byzantine historian Procopius says that the Angles didn't ride and didn't even know what a horse looked like. I haven't been able to find a full text translation of all Procopius' works to verify the quote, but in any case the Lakenheath burials argue pretty strongly against it being accurate.

Good point about Homer's descriptions of chariot warfare. Presumably the reconstructionists have some opinions (and maybe some data) on how chariot warfare could have worked?

I saw a report about fifth- or sixth-century Engish burials in London last year - wonder if the Discovery report (clickable link here) is the same discovery or another group? I must look up my notes. It didn't surprise me in the least because Bede says that London was a thriving international trading port in the 670s and I thought it probably hadn't sprung up overnight. The burials sound like just the same sort of people as the Frisian merchant Bede describes.
Given that the late Roman army was keen on hiring Germanic mercenaries (at least one of whom got into the top brass), it wouldn't be at all surprising if some of them retired and set up in business in Britain on their own account long before the Rescript of Honorius. We like to tie labels on them and argue over whether they count as 'English' or 'Late Roman', but I wonder whether they saw any more contradiction between the labels than we see in Irish-American.
Also, Honorius' letter marks the modern date attached to the end of Roman Britain, because it's convenient to have a defined end point and that's as good a one as any. How much and how fast things changed at the time is something of a moot point. Whoever it was in Wroxeter who was happily constructing big buildings to Roman measurements in the town centre in around 550 might have been surprised to be told he was no longer living in Roman Britain.

Rick said...

Carla - on horses, I guess I just assumed that since Hengist and Horsa are both horse-names, they reflected people with a horsey tradition.

Regarding battle, even French knights fought on foot sometimes, and they were trained and equipped as heavy cavalry to the max.

But if my troops are equipped as anything *but* heavy cavalry, they will fight on foot when it comes to crunch, because light cavalry does not attack a shieldwall unless they are horse archers, which I've never heard of anywhere in the west. You can use horses for mobility, even mount up cavalry wings to patrol and protect flanks, but infantry is the queen of (western) battle unless you have heavy lance cavalry.

Nice point that the early inhabitants of Lundenwic might have thought of themselves as 'Anglo-Romans' in some way, gradually drifting to being English as romanitas gradually dissolved.

What is most startling, though, as so contrary to the popular image, is sophisticated, urbane English and Britons existing at the same time, even if in different places. The stereotype is that the Britons quickly revert to being Iron Age Celts, while the English are just biker barbarians for the first couple of hundred years.

Meghan said...

I'm surprised there's a question about it, but I guess I assume too much (didn't every noble everywhere own a war horse and train it to fight?? Guess not).

It's possible that in England they didn't actually (always?)use horses in battle. A bit off the Celtic path but we can compare this a bit to the Spartans who DID own horses (King Demaratus brought an Olympic victory home when his horses won a chariot race) but we almost never hear of them used in battle since the phalanx was so important.

At any rate very interesting post, Carla!

Carla said...

Rick - well, quite. I do remember that Tolkien felt he had to justify his Rohirrim horse warriors by arguing that words like 'eored' (horse troop) in Old English implied a strong tradition of horsemanship - I think it's either in his letters or somewhere in the notes to the early drafts. So at the time he clearly felt it was a point that had to be laboured.

I haven't heard of horse archers anywhere in the west either - crossbowmen, yes, and the medieval longbow archer (English and Welsh, I believe). Somewhere in the novel Count Bohemond there's a description of Sicilian-Norman heavy cavalry managing to annihilate a sizeable shieldwall's-worth of Varangian Guard, but it takes them all day and they have to think quite hard about altering their normal tactics to make it work. I ought to look up whether that particular battle is based on fact or is out of the author's imagination. Anyway, it would tend to support your point about the worth of infantry.

Re the stereotype - you can see why I dislike it :-)

Meghan - maybe they did! There's this stereotype of the English being an exception, but I don't think it stands up.
Interesting comment about the central importance of the phalanx in Sparta. I've read something somewhere arguing that the whole of Western Europe has a cultural attitude to war that can be traced back to the Greek and especially Spartan phalanx, which is heavy infantry par excellence. This would tie in with Rick's comment above about infantry being the queen of western warfare until the advent of heavy lance cavalry. I can't remember the details now, except that I thought at the time it was interesting but a bit sweeping to try to apply the same argument over several thousand miles and several thousand years :-) I tend to the view that people adapt according to circumstance.
By the way, I have a rather vague idea that other Greek city-states used cavalry and when they were allied with Sparta they could all work more or less together - is that right?

Constance Brewer said...

Carla, obscure question based on this - "They must have been quite strong and sturdy to carry the weight of an adult man and his equipment, which is consistent with the Sutton Hoo horse being described as “thick-set”."

Weren't people smaller back then? Or am I misinformed? Last Roman reenactment I went to, the horses seemed right(14 hands) but the guys seemed wrong! toes practically dragging the ground, except for one small fellow who looked just right. He seemed about five foot six or so. I know my Roman ancestors weren't that big, wondered if that was true elsewhere. Think the early English horses were anything like Fjord ponies? Tough little beasties...

Carla said...

Constance - as usual, it's hard to get definitive data, but I don't think it's proved that people were necessarily smaller in the seventh century than now. Height depends in part on nutritional status and that in turn would be influenced by both social status and local conditions - a wealthy person in times of plenty is likely to be taller than someone scraping a living at the bottom of the social heap or on marginal land, or growing up during a famine. So height probably varied widely, probably more widely than it does now. But certainly men of the early medieval period could be just as tall as modern men. I remember one study from an English inhumation cemetery (I will look up the reference when I have time) reported the average (mean, I think) height of the men at around six feet. That's not far from modern mean UK male height which was 5 foot 9 according to the 2006 survey. Of course there's the question of how representative the cemetery data are of the seventh-century English population as a whole.

US men are on average taller than UK men by an inch or two, so that could partly explain why the re-enactors looked oversized? But I think it might be partly perception, just that we have got used to seeing taller horses and so an adult man on a 14-hand horse looks strange to us. When 14-hand horses were the norm it may not have seemed strange at all.
If Fjord ponies are anything like fell ponies, Highland ponies and Icelandic ponies, then yes I think they might well resemble the early English horses.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Comparison of bones has shown that the average German - to whom the Roman often refered as giants - were indeed about a head taller than the average Roman, but that data works for the time of the Varus battle (9 AD).

Charlemagne favoured the cavalry and restructured the army accordingly. So the armed horseman has been around on the Continent since about 800.

I'd say he built on a tradition since the German tribes provided the Romans with cavalry for several hundred years, the most famous having been the Batavians (a tribe living in what's today the Nethelands). The only German tribe not known for horsemanship were the Chatti - which is strange since they're closely related to the Batavians. Arminius' Cheruscians served as cavalry as well, and the deal Alaric wanted to strike with Honorius 400 years later included mounted troops to guard the borders.

Caesar describes a way of Germans fighting that mixed cavalry and infantry in one troop - what was later to become the cohors equitata in the Roman auxiliary - but the riders stayed mounted during the fight.

Rick said...

In the old history books, they said that Charles Martel used 'the first knights in Europe' to beat the Muslim raid at Tours in 772 or whenever that was. I don't know when lance troops became the rule, but 'knights' is misleading in connotation, with all the baggage of tournaments and such. (Roman 'knights' are so much worse - bravo to Falco; may he achieve his ambition to enter 'the middle rank.')

Lance troops must not have been looking all that super in the later 9th and 10th centuries, though, since the Vikings were kicking Frankish butt, stealing horses for mobility maybe, but fighting on foot.

I am guessing here from general developments, but it only seems around 1000 or so, broadly speaking, that heavy lance troops, i.e. 'knights' in the military sense, became reliably dominant over a shieldwall. Given the system of 'paying' troops by land tenure, once heavy lance infantry rules the battlefield, knighthood as a social institution rapidly develops. It is like a society dominated by fighter pilots.

But you can't just adopt this system by using the horses that nobles already no doubt had for riding, basic elite transportation. They may not be big enough to carry a man in armor well, and you need a LOT of them.

Knights are mostly not nobles. Didn't OE cniht originally just mean something akin to 'dude?' Nobles would hire strapping kids, teach 'em to fight, and give them a horse and grazing land in turn for showing up on command.

England had no reason to adopt lance combat, and a whole new tenure system to provide lancers and mounts, because overall the shieldwall was working for them. It nearly worked at Hastings.

Oddly enough, I would guess that in the 11th century, the stronger the monarchy the less motive and opportunity for knighthood to spread. Quarreling nobles can quickly take to maintaining small but effective bodies of knights. A king needs a lot of knights to make them worth having at all, and if he can raise a formidable shieldwall he has no obvious need for them.

The dirty secret is that good heavy infantry have nearly always been able to 'receive cavalry' if they are trained and equipped for it. Horses do not willingly impale themselves on spears. A victorious Anglo-Saxon England might never have knights, going straight from shieldwall to pikemen.

Note that the Famous English Victories in the Middle Ages are infantry victories, and while the arrow storm was a seriously big deal, the dead French knights mostly ended piled in front of an English shieldwall. Flip side, mostly written out of anglophone history is the reputation of the French mounted gendarmerie for sweeping their enemies off the field, right into the 16th century. But eventually infantry did contain them.

Annis said...

So much interesting comment on this subject to ponder on.
I came across this piece about Brochfael (Brochwel), King of Powys mid C6th and thought I'd add it to the mix. It refers to a rather earlier period, but the subject of Brochwel's coat of arms has clearly aroused conflicting opinions about the subject of Saxon use of horses in battle.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I think there's still a height gradient across modern Europe, with people in Scandinavia and Germany being on average taller than people in the Mediterranean, though of course there's a lot of individual variation and overlap between populations. I don't think it's anything like as much as a head's difference now.

Indeed, German mercenaries as cavalry is a feature of Roman armies. Charlemagne perhaps adapted the tradition to his present-day circumstances.

Rick - does the quote mean "first" as in chronology, or "first" as in foremost or best? I'm not expert on Charlemagne, but if he reorganised the army in favour of the cavalry as Gabriele says above, maybe he developed a new and more effective form of horse warrior who was later recognised (or became legendary) as the forerunner of the medieval knights of the tournaments.
I'm also not an expert on the Vikings vs the Franks, but my understanding is that the Norse had a hard time against the Franks when the Frankish kingdom was united, and tended to get repulsed with a bloody nose to look for easier targets elsewhere (like England). After Charlemagne when the Frankish empire started squabbling internally, the Norse did much better. Politics may be at least as important in the ebb and flow as technical military developments; even "war-winning weapons" need competent logistics, competent generalship and motivation if they are to be effective.

"Cniht" is an Old English word meaning youth, follower, disciple, retainer, warrior. I would say it indicates something like the old comitatus (warband) tradition. It perhaps took on its modern meaning as noblemen's bands of military retainers came to consist mainly of armoured horsemen during the Middle Ages.

"Oddly enough, I would guess that in the 11th century, the stronger the monarchy the less motive and opportunity for knighthood to spread" The reverse is certainly true and applied in later times than the 11th century. Nobles with their own lands and their own private armies could apply quite sharp limits to a king's power. A weak monarch could be batted about from one faction to another, and the competent medieval monarchs maintained their position as much by playing the factions off against each other as by overt military power. You can read most of medieval English history as a shifting power-play between the king and the big barons, right up to 1485 when Henry Tudor abolished the private armies. The same thing probably applied in earlier times - I say 'probably' because we don't have much in the way of political histories from the seventh century. However, there are occasional mentions in Bede that suggest a king needed the support of his powerful nobles (King Oswin comes to mind), and in the late 9th century Alfred was always finding that some important ealdorman or other had gone over to the Danes. I think this just reflects the decentralised nature of medieval kingship rather than anything to do with horses as such. In the absence of fast communication, the local guy on the ground has to have the resources to be able to respond to a threat without waiting for the king's say-so, and by the same token he can turn the same resources against his neighbour or the king if he chooses.

Annis - thanks for the link. As far as I can tell from the bibliography, the sources for Brochfael's coat of arms (which is also claimed by the site's owner) are all rather late. Coats of arms as such belong to medieval heraldry, and while early medieval kings and lords probably used some sort of badge or banner I don't think there's any evidence that they looked like medieval coats of arms. The coat of arms as shown on the site might be drawing on long-held traditions but there might also be a fair dollop of legend involved. I'd want to see some evidence from nearer Brochfael's own time.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, Charlemagne reorganised the entire structure of the army and made it the most effective of his time. The heavily armed mounted warriors were not only a military feature, though, but also formed a new social class because it takes money to equip yourself and maybe some retainers that way (foot soldiers or even archers come cheaper).

Charlemagne had a relatively stable reign because he fought a number of successful wars that gained him land he could give to his nobles as fief, and overall the ones who might have rebelled were content. Except Tassilo of Bavaria and some. :)

Later German kings / emperors had lots of trouble with the nobles - remember my posts about Heinrich IV and Otto of Northeim as just one example. Then we have Frederick Barbarossa and Heinrich the Lion, Heinrich's son Otto and a bunch of rebellious nobles who in the end ousted him of the position as Emperor ... It was no fun to be King of Germany and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. :)

Rick said...

Carla - 'First knights' in the context seemed to be chronological. This is (my memory of) an old popular history, so not authoritative about anything. Certainly later tradition made Charlemagne and his court the fount of knighthood, till Arthur showed up in competition.

Charlemagne's guys were certainly knights in the military sense, heavy lancers. They were presumably raised in a way that was the basis for later practice. My impression, though, FWIW, is that the cultural paraphernalia - coats of arms, tournaments, knights as a social class, knighthood as a code, developed over a fairly short time in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Knights must have scrimmaged as soon as they appeared; it is how they train. For at least a couple of hundred years it was (apparently) just young guys mixing combat training with rough play. Then, fairly abruptly, they standardize their shield designs, and convince their girlfriends to line the stands and do a bit of teasing disrobing (throwing sleeves?) Thus prettied up, the custom persists in that distinct form for 500 years, a standard and prominent feature of aristocratic social life, only dying out when the heavy-armored lancer disappeared from the battlefield, or a bit later.

Kings essentially had to play the balancing act you describe up till the financial tools appeared to allow a paid standing army. Henry VII did not have one, but he's about the first English king who could have organized and maintained one. Nobles actually raised and led most forces in Tudor England, but were kept in line by the sort of latent deterrent of a royal standing army.

This goes to all sorts of things I've been finding out in dealing with Catherine's situation, about the nature of 16th century 'new' monarchy. Suffice to say that if my girl spends the cost of a warship on a dress, it isn't vanity or even 'because I can,' but as an expression of the power and prestige of the monarchy. "If I can afford to dress like this, just think what I can do to your castle if I spend the money on culverins instead." :-)

Carla said...

Gabriele - Not so very different form being King of England! I wonder why they all wanted the job :-)

Rick - The Middle Ages proper is a bit out of my line. I had an idea that heraldry came in around the 12th century too, but don't quote me on that. Tournaments in the 12th-C featured the melee, a violent mock battle in which more or less anything went, and I have an idea that the image we all have today of the formal tournament and the ladies throwing sleeves etc is somewhat later. Elizabeth Chadwick knows a lot about the development of the medieval tourney (especially in relation to William Marshal) and you might find some interesting material on her blog.
The cost of a warship ought to produce quite some dress :-) I wonder if Elizabeth I considered her enormous wardrobe part of the defence budget? I've seen a historian arguing that it was some sort of psychological response to the traumatic childhood memory of growing out of all her clothes when Henry forgot about her after Ann Boleyn's execution, but I must say I like your idea better :-) Is the deterrent effect relying on two items of logic: (1) the nobles think the dress hasn't used up all the crown's money, i.e. she could buy culverins as well; or (2) the dress could be 'converted' to culverins relatively fast if needed to deal with an uppity noble.

Rick said...

Carla - I'm pretty sure that it is around 1200 that we have preserved rolls of arms, i.e. who showed up at a tournement. It is likely still the old melee, but the fight card is being posted, so to speak, formalizing the thing and almost inviting an audience to the show. Ladies throwing sleeves is probably a bit later, but not much. The Arthurian craze is going full force, and invites the gals into the stands.

As an aside, and apart from all hoopla about 'courtly love,' isn't the striking feature of Romance in its original form that it was aimed at a mixed audience? Before that, I suppose the men all stayed in the great hall to hear hack & hew stories, while the women - who can't have been that thrilled by Roland killing his 700th Saracen - read each other virgin-martyr-of-the-week soap operas upstairs.

Romance was the original date movie, with love scenes for the girls and lots of explosions for the guys. :-)

With Elizabeth it is always hard to disentangle the personal and political. If she had personal reasons for so many dresses, I'd peg it to a later experience. From the time of the Tom Seymour scandal till she came to the throne, ages 15-25, she had to dress as the Good Protestant Girl. Tough for a girl with a natural taste for the showy!

The calculus of royal display is more psychological, not just a balance sheet of dresses v culverins. To steal a line from myself, it is all about marching your power and authority through the town square 'to roll of drum and shrill of pipe and captured battle standards.' Human beings are suckers for a show.

The parade is essentially military, and the culverins are on hand, hauled on their limbers by 50 horses. The gorgeous dresses and ladies in waiting soften the thing a bit, like pretty girls on floats between the marching bands, so it doesn't feel quite so much like a conqueror. 16th c. people had a good feel for this, because the whole culture was stagey.

Plus, the most expensive dresses could indeed be 'converted' if need be - the real money is all those jewels sewn into them. Jewelry then and now does double duty, an investment you can wear.

Aside on parades. I mentioned on another board that all the stuff that marching bands do is a historical holdover from how armies in 1700 displayed their ability to kick ass. To simplify not too grossly, prior to formal drill, troops formed up for battle could only march straight ahead. An army that could march out on the flank, then instantly change face and advance, could slice and dice a traditional army. Parades in front of the palace were precisely equivalent to the modern flyover of jet fighters in nice neat diamond formations.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, I would so have been the girl who sneaked into the hall to hear about Roland. Virgin saints are boring. :)

Carla said...

Rick - I second Gabriele; don't count on it. I can't speak for the High Middle Ages, which are out of my line, though even then I rather doubt that people's behaviour was quite as constrained and segregated as it was supposed to be. Earlier periods suffer from the usual problem of a patchy (!) evidence base, so the usual caveats apply, but it's worth noting that Wealhtheow in Beowulf presides over the victory feast alongside Hrothgar, and presumably Raedwald's queen was hardly stuck upstairs reading soap operas since she saw fit to lecture her husband about politics and win. The Riddles aren't noticeably for a single-sex audience, and poems like The Husband's Message and Wulf and Eadwacer are just as much concerned with love as the later romances (though not quite such a flowery kind). I rather think mixed audiences could exist before courtly love and troubadours. It's also worth noting that, much as the marketing industry would like to slot people neatly into categories the better to sell them things, there are plenty of women who don't much care for 'girly' films and books and plenty of men who don't much care for the 'guy' equivalent. I bet there has always been overlap, then as now.

Indeed, image and show are as much a part of maintaining power as the guns themselves. If people think you could destroy them if you chose they're less inclined to try it on to find out. Which I suppose underlies the whole method of gunboat diplomacy, no?
Your Catherine has something of an advantage over a male ruler in her world, because she has the traditional feminine display methods - beauty, glamour, expensive clothes and jewels - available to her, as well as the traditional monarchical display methods - guns, soldiers, defeated enemies. So she can stage a triumph twice over. She can also pull the contrast between the popular feminine image and her role of real power, which I bet makes it difficult for foreign powers and rebellious nobles to take her measure; she has more options to wrong-foot them and keep them guessing than a male ruler would have. The one card she doesn't have that Elizabeth I had, though, is the card of her marriage. I shall be interested to see how you handle that!

Gabriele - you wouldn't be the only one :-)

Magpie said...

We may be able to infer whether Anglo-Saxons fought from horseback by their weaponry and mentality of battle.
I don't know the actual answers to any of this... just offering a line of reasoning:

If you are going to fight on horse in melee with infantry you are not going to stay mounted for very long. The horse is a huge target, and one spearthrust and it is down - and you are potentially pinned under it. It's thrashing alone might kill you.
You can fight sort of effectively, however, if you are solidly supported and surrounded by your own infantry, and you're good at it.

If you are going to use it as a shock weapon, and not give the other side a chance to bring you down, your seat on the horse has to be very firm to withstand the impact, which means stirrups or equivalent technology.
Did the Anglo-Saxons have stirrups?

Swords used for fighting on horses were often curved so they could slash and exit the wound without entangling the owner, meaning too they had to be very sharp. Broadswords and spathas are not so good for that. Not useless, mind, just not ideal. But that technology for curved swords is intermittent... The Egyptians and perhaps the Hyksos had a curved bladed weapon (and farming tool) but thereafter they are less common till the early middle ages.

All of which doesn't matter if the fighting is ritualised and therefore allows for some inefficiency... so you might fight from horseback if offer to fight you from horseback, because your pride requires it.

I reckon most of them got off and fought on foot, personally, with some on horseback for status and because they were good at fighting from there. The skill required to fight mounted is immense and only a full-time soldier has the practice - and who is farming in the meantime?
If you own a horse then you are keeping an animal that has few economic returns. Can't drink its milk (although Steppe nomads might), can't eat it and plowing with it came later. It's a rich man's item, so unless you are serious about being a dedicated warrior, or simply have the status, you probably won't own one, and therefore not master its use.

All corrections and disagreements welcome. And I'd be upstairs with the girls.

Anonymous said...

Convincing evidence, for sure. I do think the Life of Wilfrid shows they used horses for military purposes, though they probably rode the horses to battle and dismounted, as was the old Germanic way of fighting. We know the Anglo-Saxons rode to Hastings to face Duke William, and once there, they dismounted and formed a shield wall on Senlac Hill (though that was four centuries later from the period in discussion here). I think your sources show they definitely rode horses, for military purposes as well as travel, and high importance and respect must have been placed on the animals as evidenced in the burials.

Rick said...

Carla - Oh, I was overstating the segregation for effect. I know absolutely nothing about early medieval literature except that people drink mead and slay dragons, but to take one much older example, the Odyssey certainly should work well for a mixed audience.

I was playing off 'disease of the week' movies on TV; I don't know if you have those across the pond; they may be a distinctly US syndrome. I have a feeling, though, that there's a fair amount of covert luridness to all those poor virtuous virgins, and it worked better and worse as popular entertainment than it seems to us now.

Yes, women rulers get to wear their power as designer originals, and still review troops. In my era they also get to play off courtly conventions, as Elizabeth sure did. Marriage does not strictly speaking rule this out, though it makes it just a bit dicey if it gets out of hand. But that's a problem for an unmarried queen, too.

Catherine does not rush into marriage, but of course once she does she can't play her marriage card any more, and she has to deal with him somehow. My cheat is that her hubby is quite happy to kick butt abroad, and enjoy being an It's Good to be King king at home. If the missus wants to appoint the Sheriff of Blockheadshire, he can cross it off his to-do list.

The nice thing is that especially in the early 16th century this still works; kings make their reputation in the field. Laying those captured battle standards at his lady's feet works fine, and he gets a chief minister who also works the night shift. Being at home is shore duty, 9 to 5 and half of that at the O-club.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - you and Gabriele prove the point that gender stereotypes don't always apply :-)
The Stirrup Question is almost as bad as Disraeli's Irish Question. As far as I know the current view is that stirrups turned up in Europe nearer to 700 than 600, having been borrowed from the steppe cultures further east. But you can have an effective cavalry without stirrups. The Romans managed happily enough with the horned saddle and no stirrups.
You make a very good point about the importance of economic factors. I think that's crucial; the workings of the ecnomy determine a lot of the boundaries for what's possible in a society. My view tends to be that trained warhorses and the men to handle them in battle would be rare, for just those economic reasons. Doesn't mean they didn't exist at all, but I doubt that cavalry would be the dominant component of an early English army. I shall come back to all this in another post some day - it's too big a subject for a comment thread!

Steven T - the Life of Wilfred reference can be interpreted either as mounted infantry or cavalry. If the Aberlemno symbol stone is really a Pictish commemoration of the Dunnichen victory over Ecgfrith in 685, it shows a cavalry battle, which would imply that Ecgfrith's army had a cavalry component (it could of course have been only a small elite part of the army). I'll come back to this in due course too. But any individual battle could have been fought using tactics that happened to suit that particular time, place and circumstance, so generalisations have to be treated with extreme caution.

Rick - there's a TV series called Bodyshock which sounds similar, though I never watch it. (References to TV have a distressing tendency to go over my head. Yes, I have recently landed from Mars).
Your solution to a Renaissance ruling queen's husband problem is a good one. I can see how it would work. It's a sort of extension of the traditional male and female roles but writ large. She runs the home (in this case the country), and he beats up outside enemies and brings home trophies. Perfect. I wonder why it never seems to have worked out like that in real life? :-)

Rick said...

On military use of horses, there are plenty of military missions, including combat roles, that don't call for the specialized equipment, training, or sheer number of mounted men as knightly warfare (in the purely military sense) does.

I think you can fight effectively mounted in a melee with infantry, so long as it is pretty open - what you never want to do is get surrounded by hostile foot. But a few mounted guys with ordinary spears can be very effective in breaking up a skirmish line, or in a pursuit. Good all-round warriors, like housecarls, don't need extensive special cavalry training, as they would if they were going to charge a shieldwall.

One other big consideration is size of forces. 'Petty kingdoms' by definition don't have big armies. The whole geometry of the battlefield is different when you have hundreds rather than thousands of men involved. All combat is more or less skirmishing when you don't have enough troops for mass formations. 'Champion' warfare makes sense on this scale.

Yes, Catherine's marriage is traditional convention scaled up. The lady keeps the castle, the lord fights the Saracens. (When I conceived this story line, fighting 'Monites' in a synologue to the Battle of Lepanto had far fewer real-world overtones than it does now!)

Ferdinand and Isabella aren't quite parallel, since each had a kingdom, but the division of labor was somewhat similar. Ferd commanded in battle, and Izzy was quartermaster general. In real life the problem for regnant queens was finding a suitable hubby. It's hard to see who either Elizabeth or MQS could have married that would not have been a disaster in the making.

Carla said...

Yes, armies in the seventh century were small. It's easy to lose sight of that. One of the early law codes says "more than seven men makes a warband, more than 35 makes an army" or words to that effect. You have to be careful projecting big battles like Hastings back into that context; it's a different world.

"It's hard to see who either Elizabeth or MQS could have married that would not have been a disaster in the making"
Quite so. The same applies to Mary Tudor as well. I wonder if they were dead unlucky to have no suitable candidates, or if Isabella of Castile was dead lucky to have one?

Rick said...

In particular, as hinted above, perhaps 'champion' warfare isn't just thickheaded barbarians out for personal glory. Since it is going to be small-unit combat in any case, perhaps it makes sense to send each expert warrior out at the head of a squad of less trained 'militia,' who can have his back and advance behind him, rather than bunching your expert fighters together.

The Reformation made it harder for queens, cutting the pool of eligible men in half. The pool of princesses was also cut in half, but kings had less to worry about from their consorts. Philip II would have been much less problematic for Mary without the religious divide.

Carla said...

Rick - no, of course it isn't, and they weren't all 'thickheaded', either :-)

Yes, the Reformation made a real mess of the marriage market. Kings did suffer from unpopular wives, but the problem was far less acute than for a ruling queen because of the expected balance of power in a marriage.

Barbara Martin said...

Very interesting post on horses in earlier times. I have a passion for horses including their early involvement with humans.

Carla said...

Barbara - thanks. Early involvement between horses and humans goes back way before my period - somewhere in the Neolithic, I would guess? Not counting hunting wild horses, which probably goes back to the year dot.

Anonymous said...

Kerry Cathers did a PhD on this very question. I don't think she's still doing history or published very much but I saw her giving a paper once. She said that Anglo-Saxons used horses in battle more than most historians previously thought, although I can't remember much of the evidence now. The one point that stuck in my mind was that it's teleological to assume that they couldn't have used cavalry because their horses were too small: they didn't know that horses were going to get bigger in the future!

Carla said...

Gavin - Hello and welcome. Thanks for that, and I'll look out for her name. It would be great if her thesis happened to be available online! I suppose there would be an absolute size below which a horse would be too small for effective cavalry use - Shetland ponies might be a problem, for example - but as long as a horse is big enough and strong enough to carry an adult man it could be used in cavalry if desired.

Anonymous said...

Comment on what Sarah wrote.

The fact that Birhtnoth gave a specific command for the horsemen to dismount and drive their horses away might suggest that they would normally expect to fight on horseback, at least in the type of conditions they faced in this particular engagement. Notice that he had to give them specific instructions on what their tactics should be while fighting on foot! It could suggest that they did not normally fight on foot. It also could suggest they were inexperienced recruits, too, I suppose. Eric

Carla said...

Hello Eric and welcome. Yes, it could indicate that Byrhtnoth's men would normally fight from horseback. Or, as you suggest, it might indicate that they were relatively inexperienced, at least for this particular type of engagement. Perhaps another possibility could be that Byrthnoth's chosen tactics were unconventional - after all, letting the Norsemen cross the causeway unmolested might not have been the most obvious move in the circumstances - and so required him to explain what he wanted his men to do. (Or, I suppose, it might just indicate that Byrthnoth was something of a micro-manager?). Or that the poet wanted to stress that all the decisions were Byrhtnoth's, for whatever reason. And maybe other possibilities too! It's very difficult to generalise from an account of a specific engagement, because we don't know how typical or atypical it was, or what special factors might have influenced the tactics chosen.

Anonymous said...

In case you don't already know, Kerry's thesis is now available for free download at EThOS (links direct to a thesis don't seem to work too well so you'll need to search). The title is 'An examination of the horse in Anglo-Saxon England'.

Carla said...

Gavin - thanks very much for the link, that's much appreciated.