Anglo-Saxons and their horses

by Helen Hollick

Until recently, it was widely accepted that Anglo-Saxon armies consisted solely of infantry formation, and 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."

Exmoor Pony
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.

want to read more? The full article is on the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog - where you'll also find lots of other interesting historical articles!

Part One Anglo-Saxons and Their Horses

Part Two  Harold II's Horses...

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.

   "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."

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