Re-Envisioning the Medieval Charger

Medieval Charger

The Medieval War horse is fully formed in our mind. They looked like Zelda, more than 16 hands, maybe even 17 or 18 hands, strong and brave. Perhaps stallions, instead of mares, but the ground would shake during combat. The truth may not be quite so impressive. New research, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, suggests that medieval warhorses were likely no larger than a pony.

Researchers at five English universities examined the bones of nearly 2,000 horses from the 4th to 17th centuries, recovered from 171 unique archaeological sites including castles and medieval horse cemeteries. The team then compared the dataset to samples taken from modern horses to get a clearer picture of the sizes and shapes of the medieval steeds.

Their work revealed that the majority of medieval horses, including those used in war — destriers –were less than 14.2 hands (4 feet 10 inches). One of the largest horses discovered on the grounds of Trowbridge castle in Wiltshire was just 15 hands (5 feet) tall, which would be considered a small riding horse today.

There are differing opinions. Other research, based on existing horse armor, estimates that destriers were no more than 15.2 hands high with a weight of 1200 to 1300 pounds, about the size of an average modern horse. A horse this size could easily carry the weight of a knight in full armor including saddle, barding, tack, and weapons. Larger horses were used to pull cannons and wagons and rarely saw combat. Destriers were also used in tournaments where speed and agility were important. Destriers were bred to be hot-blooded, meaning they were spirited, fearless in battle, and would even attack other horses by biting and kicking.

One of the issues is that although historical evidence points to the 13th century as the high point of horse armor, there are no surviving examples that can be definitively dated to that period.

Medieval charger, or destrier. Image from the University of Heidelberg Library

Medieval European horse armor is largely known from illustrations and surviving documents. Although historical evidence points to the 13th century as the high point of its use in Europe, there are no known surviving examples that can be securely dated to that period. One of the earliest examples that can be used as a model is 14th century mail.

There is only one known surviving example of a medieval mail crinet (neck defence for a horse), which is now in the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England. It is believed to have been made in the 14th century in Lombardy, Italy.

I guess that considering the relatively small size of people during the medieval period, it makes sense that the horses might also be smaller.

In doing the research, I’ve come across some interesting data on the protectiveness of armor. I’ll post that next.

5 thoughts on “Re-Envisioning the Medieval Charger

  1. I love this! I ride a 14.2 Morab, and if I was a knight, he is exactly the kind of horse I would want–fast, agile and very, very bold.

  2. I’ve been in several museums in Europe, for instance, the Tower of London, one in Stuttgart, etc that have armor from those periods. You are right, the horses then were small. THere’s a painting by Durer that shows a man standing next to his ‘warhorse’ and the horse is, in my not so expert opinion, about 14.2. Either that or the man is 7 ft tall.
    One of the things that strikes you, when you see a suit of armor, is how small the wearer was. Men in those days were usually no taller than 5″6.
    As for the riders on these chargers? In Charles Caramello’s “Riding to Arms”, a book discussing the war horse, he says that the knight in the saddle was so armored that he was incapable of using aids like legs, or even shifting his weight. Pretty much, he was merely required to stay aboard.

  3. Also, being a student of the war horse, it’s interesting that the vast majority of Northern European knights would no mare ride a mare than he would have worn a skirt. (well, maybe the Scots..). A man rode a stallion. Period. Whereas the Arabs, and the Mongols, rode smaller, lighter horses and preferred mares because they weren’t so apt to call out when secrecy was needed. History will show you that the light cavalry of the steppe tribes were the key to defeating the tin cans on horseback.

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