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All the King’s horses

We’re delighted to present this article exploring the types of horses that might have been at the Field of Cloth of Gold. It’s been written by the Warhorse Project, a multidisciplinary research collaboration between the Universities of Exeter and East Anglia.

All the King’s horses

Horses were visible symbols of wealth and power in medieval England. Henry VIII was particularly invested in horses and brought over 3,000 with him to France in 1520 for his legendary meeting with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. These horses were part of the extravagant display of enormous wealth and opulence which Henry organised to impress Francis and the people of France. While many monarchs took a close interest in horse breeding, Henry VIII in particular was anxious that English horseflesh reflected the power of the Tudor dynasty.

A map of the UK showing important sites

Major royal horse breeding sites in the mid-Tudor period. 1.Eltham Palace 2. Hampton Court 3. Malmesbury 4. Warwick 5. Tutbury 6. ‘Eskermayne’ 7. Unknown

Breeding a weapon

Since at least the 12th century, English kings maintained a network of horse studs for specialised breeding, chiefly located in the deer parks close to royal residences. During Henry’s reign, royal horse breeding was focused in a small number of places around the country. Documents tell us that these studs were truly international in character, with horses imported from the Low Countries, Italy, Spain, and Turkey in order to improve English bloodstock. Many of the horses taken by Henry VIII to the Field of the Cloth of Gold would have either been born into, or otherwise passed through, the Tudor stud network.

An old book with handwritten script.

Part of an account book of Queen Catherine Howard and the expenses of some of the horses of her household.

Henry VIII saw himself in the mould of his illustrious royal predecessors, especially warrior kings like his hero Henry V, and dreamed of restarting the Hundred Years War against France. To that end he believed in ensuring England had an excellent stock of warhorses. The problem, as Henry saw it, was not a lack of horses (the English had at least 3,217 horses at the Field of Cloth of Gold), but that there were insufficient numbers of ‘Great Horses’ which the English could ride in battle. It was a problem Henry grappled with throughout his reign, leading to several Acts of Parliament designed to protect and improve the quality of English horseflesh.

In the 1530s, Acts were passed forbidding the export of horses overseas and to Scotland without special licence. Two further Acts intended to improve the realm’s stock, and in particular their size. The Breed of Horses Act (1535) sought to improve the situation by requiring owners of deer parks to possess at least two mares no less than 13 hands high (hh), and not allow them to breed with stallions less than 14hh. An Act of 1540 went even further, stating that ‘any mare filly foole [foal] or gelding that then shalbe thought not to be able to growe to be able to beare fooles of reasonnable stature … [are] to be killed’. Fortunately, this harsh provision was later repealed by Elizabeth I.

Investigating the physical remains of horses recovered during archaeological excavations can further elaborate on the size and conformation of medieval horses. By the 16th century, warhorses were becoming lighter and swifter, while jousting tournaments continued to favour sturdier destrier-type medieval chargers. The latter were ideal for jousting as they had been carefully bred and trained for mêlée-style combat. Contrary to common belief, these horses were relatively small, rarely reaching more than 14hh or 15hh at the shoulder, more similar to a sturdy pony than the heavy draft horses depicted in modern media.

A piece of horse armour being measured by someone wearing gloves.

A shaffron of Henry VIII’s reign being measured in the collections of the Royal Armouries (Photograph: O. Creighton).

The custom-made armour for these horses can also provide an indirect indication of their size. While armour was often made to fit a specific animal, individual pieces varied greatly in design, making it difficult to reconstruct the animal beneath. An exception, however, is the shaffron, which was fitted closely to the horse’s face and therefore gives an idea of its size and shape (Fig 3). The Royal Armouries house a large number of the shaffrons Henry VIII bought for his horses, most of which were for pony-sized animals, with only a small number made to fit much larger horses.

A symbol of Tudor power and glory

An intricate horse bit

Curb bit, c. 1520, probably for King Henry VIII. Royal Armouries VI.200

Horses were not just fitted with armour, but with a wide variety of functional and decorative ornamentation. Whether at the lists where the jousts took place, or processing around the Field of the Cloth of Gold, horses provided a canvas for display. Ornaments such as swaged fabric and leather straps of harnesses and trappers do not survive today, but are depicted on the famous painted panorama The Field of the Cloth of Gold (c. 1545), while written accounts reference the sound of the gold bells that decorated Henry VIII’s horse. Contemporary objects that do survive suggest that metal elements were increasingly exploited for their visual impact. The engraving and gilding of a 16th-century curb bit shows that every inch was being utilised for display, while other functional pieces were adapted to provide a new canvas for engraved and openwork decoration, such as the widening of the stirrup’s arm.

An ornate horse stirrup

Stirrup, c. 1520, probably for a Knight of the Garter. British Museum SLMisc.1451 (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Equally impressive as the dazzling pieces which adorned the horses, were the arenas they performed in. From their origins in the 12th century, tournaments were chivalric playgrounds for entertainment and military training. In 1194, King Richard I restricted tournaments to five locations in England, mostly in broad, open countryside at visible points in the landscape. Urban commons outside city walls were other popular locations for tournaments, such as the renowned site at Smithfield, London. The facilities — barriers around the arena, scaffolding for spectators and tents for participants — were temporary, but the same sites were frequently reused. By the reign of Henry VIII, these tournaments had become more theatrical and much more exclusive, with the greatest tournament facilities now in the grounds of palaces. A 16th-century tiltyard at Kenilworth Castle occupied a narrow causeway across the castle moat, while at Hampton Court Palace, bespoke tiltyards flanked by viewing towers resembling miniature artillery fortresses were built from 1537 but were never actually used by Henry, seeing their first use in Elizabeth I’s reign.

A riding yard flanked by three and a castle in the background

The site of the tiltyard at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, comprising a flat platform on top of a dam holding back the castle moat. (Photograph: O. Creighton)

As symbols of the wealth and power of the English monarchs, the horses which accompanied Henry VIII 500 years ago at the Field of the Cloth of Gold represented the image of majesty and authority that Henry wished to project to his European rivals. Henry’s obsession with the ‘Great Horse’ has endured through the years, and today the warhorse remains a familiar symbol of chivalric culture during the Middle Ages.

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