“When the Pale was troubled by an eruption of the O’Byrnes and
O’Moores in 1372”—Professor Ridgeway writes in his interesting and
instructive work, “The Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred
Horse”—“who burned the priory of Athy, John Colton, the first Master
of Gonville Hall (now Gonville and Caius College) and successively
Dean of St Patrick’s, Chancellor of Ireland, and Archbishop of Armagh,
raised a force of twenty-six knights and a large body of men-at-arms
and fell upon the Irish and defeated them with great slaughter.”
Upon referring to the records of this incident, to be found in several
of our histories, it becomes evident that in the Pale at that time
there must have been many horses of the stamp that to-day we speak of
as the “great” horse.
The insurrection alluded to so lightly as “an eruption of the
O’Byrnes and O’Moores” in reality was a serious affair, due, we are
told, mainly to the almost total disregard of certain just demands
made by O’Byrne, O’Moore and their followers. The Irish were for the
most part badly mounted and poorly armed, many of their horses having
been seized surreptitiously a short time prior to the outbreak, but
they appear to have made a very gallant defence.
John Colton’s men-at-arms were, however, nearly all of great weight
and heavily armed, so it is not surprising to read that they “made
short work of the Irish rebels.” Remarkable would it have been had
they not done so, for we must bear in mind that their suppressors were
of immeasurably superior strength.
* * * * *
A horse foaled some years after this, which lived to become famous
in British history, was King Richard II.’s barbary, often called
Roan Barbary. The king, we are told in rather extravagant language,
“loved Roan Barbary as an only son,” and certainly it is true that
he was exceptionally fond of this particular horse which poets,
dramatists and writers of romance at various periods have all united
Richard’s grief and rage at hearing that Bolingbroke had chosen Roan
Barbary, of all horses, upon which to ride to Westminster when he
went there to be crowned, has many times been described, Shakespeare
himself referring to the incident in _King Richard II_. in the
well-known line, “When Bolingbroke rode on Roan Barbary, that horse
that thou so often hast bestrid.” Roan Barbary was a tall horse, well
shaped and well schooled, but of uncertain temper. The king “could
do with the steed whate’er he wished,” but some of the grooms hardly
dared approach to groom it “lest he sideways kick them.”
It is interesting to note here that the history of early times, when
it touches upon horses—which it does frequently—alludes upon many
occasions to the partiality of particular horses for certain persons,
and to their equally marked dislike for certain other persons.
The inference naturally would be that these particular horses were
partial to the men who treated them humanely and disliked those who
ill-treated them. If the early historians are to be believed, however,
the horses’ likes and dislikes for various persons were irrespective
of the way they had been treated by such persons.
Particularly does this appear to have been the case with Roan Barbary,
for we are assured that all who had charge of him, or to do with
him in any way, treated him invariably “with kindness and great
cordiality” (!) the king having issued strict orders that they should.
In the British Museum there may be seen to-day a French metrical
history of the deposition of Richard II. which informs us that the
king owned “many a good horse of foreign breed.”
* * * * *
Mr J. P. Hore, the well-known authority, is of opinion that “the
thoroughbred English horse was characteristic of the nation” in the
reign of Richard II., and adds that “horses were then recognised and
their praises sung.”
There is no doubt that between 1377 and 1399 the interest taken in
horses in this country by persons of almost every class developed
rapidly. The agricultural community in particular had by then begun
to turn its attention seriously to the rearing of a better stamp of
horse, and we know that Chaucer, who lived from 1328 to 1400, tells us
that his famous monk had “full many a daintie horse in stable.”
Chaucer’s interesting references to the various sorts of horse in use
in the fourteenth century are numerous, and they serve to show that
persons of different rank rode horses of different stamp. Thus on that
fine April morning when the motley party of pilgrims set out from the
Bell at Southwark upon their hasty journey we find the Knight mounted
on a big and powerful horse—naturally a knight wearing armour needed
such a beast to carry him—whereas the steed ridden by “the Clerk of
Oxenford” was “as leane as any rake.”
The Wife of Bath, on the other hand, with her “great spurs,” sat
astride an “amblere”; the Ploughman rode “a mere”; the Shipman from
Dartmouth rode “a rouncy as he couth”; while the Reeve “sat upon a fit
good stot that was all pomely gray, and highte Scot.” In the “Knight’s
Tale” we find the King of Ynde riding “a horse of baye.”
Apparently at this time greater attention was paid to the breeding and
rearing of horses for war than for hunting or for “speed competitions”
or any other purpose. Evidently King Richard had become more fully
aware of the possibilities that existed for the use of powerful
cavalry than any of his predecessors had done. Indeed he is said to
have expressed upon one occasion a strong wish that his army might one
day consist of cavalry only.
He believed, too, that the heavier the chargers were the more
formidable the regiment must be, and so wholly did this belief obsess
him that upon occasions he betrayed a tendency to overlook the fact
that the heaviest horses in the world, the most finely trained—in
short, the best—must necessarily prove comparatively useless unless
their riders, in addition to being brave and well armed, were
thoroughly trained horsemen and well disciplined.
Referring again to Chaucer, we find in the “Squire’s Tale,” which he
did not finish, the well-known story of Cambuscan’s wooden horse, and
we find this also in “The Arabian Nights”—that series of delightful
narratives said to have been first made known by Antoine Gallard, the
French Oriental scholar. The famous brazen horse of romance is the
same, for it was Cambuscan’s, and Cambuscan was King of Sarra, in
Tartary. Cambuscan possessed, so it was said, all the virtues that are
popularly attributed to a king, yet withal none of a king’s vices;
also he was said to be passionately devoted to his queen, Elfeta, who
bore him two sons, Algarsife and Cambalo, and one daughter, Canace.
We are further told that the King of Arabia and India presented
Cambuscan with “a steed of brass, which between sunrise and sunset
would carry its rider to any spot on earth.” To make the horse do this
all that was necessary was that its rider should whisper into its ear
the name of the place to which he wished to travel, and that he should
then mount the horse and turn a pin set in its ear.
This done, the “animal” would go direct and at great speed to the
place required, whereupon the rider turned another pin and descended.
By turning a third pin it was possible to make the horse vanish and
not reappear until its presence was again needed.
Aligero Clavileno was the full name of the winged horse with the
wooden pin, the horse which Don Quixote rode upon the memorable
occasion of his rescue of Dolorida and her companions.
But enough of fairy tales and nonsense. Coming to the subject of horse
races in early times we find it gravely stated that “the earliest
description of a horse race _per se_ occurs in 1377,” though we know
that race meetings of a sort were held long before that date. The
whereabouts of the track where the races in 1377 took place has not
been ascertained, but it is known that some of the horses which ran
belonged to Lord Arundel, and some to the Prince of Wales, so soon to
become Richard II.
At this meeting it was that a match was arranged to take place between
the Prince and Lord Arundel, each to ride his own animal. The match
was run, and as the name of the winner has not, so far as I have been
able to ascertain, been handed down to us, we may conclude that the
Prince’s horse was beaten. Had the winner been ridden by a Prince of
Wales some record of the victory would assuredly be extant.
That Richard II. was a fine horseman, as finished horsemanship was
understood in those days, there can be but little doubt. Yet it is
remarkable that the natural gift known as “hands”—that is to say the
power some men have of controlling a horse by delicate manipulation
of the reins as opposed to brute force—apparently was not taken into
consideration in the early centuries, or else was not understood and
consequently not cultivated. To-day, of course, a man with bad “hands”
is not deemed a horseman, properly speaking.
Thus it comes that we find some of the early instructors in
horsemanship deliberately advising the novice to catch hold of the
reins tightly in order to keep his seat with greater ease! Some of the
early pictures, too, of men on horseback show the rider with his hands
firmly clenched, even when the horse is walking, the reins held quite
It has been argued that men sheathed from head to foot in the heavy
plate armour of the fifteenth century could not have ridden gracefully
even had they wished to do so. Long before armour of that pattern
had come into vogue, however, the riders apparently were indifferent
horsemen inasmuch as they had for the most part bad “hands,” if we are
to judge from early pictures and descriptions.
* * * * *
Many stories to do with horses have been woven round the celebrated
French knight, Pierre du Terrail, Chevalier Bayard, and it is known
that whatever the qualities, fictitious or otherwise, may have been
that his horses are alleged to have possessed, Bayard was a fine
rider, “the boldest horseman of his period” as one historian describes
Of medium height, slim, and a light weight, he was “of wholly
irreproachable character”; hence the description which still clings to
his memory—_Le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche_.
Truly remarkable are some of the feats of horsemanship attributed to
him still. Thus it is said that he could ride any horse bareback and
without a bridle, and that he rode in this way several savage animals
which, when saddled and bridled, several famous horsemen were not able
even to mount. But such stories must, of course, be believed only in
Probably the best horse owned by this knight was the one named Carman,
or Carmen, a gift of the Duke of Lorrain. Particulars about its make
and shape apparently are not on record, but Carman carried Bayard
through several severe engagements, though thrice severely wounded.
It is said that Bayard was able to guide this horse by word of mouth
alone, when he found it advisable to do so, and that upon some
occasions the steed “would neigh in reply as though joyful at hearing
its master’s voice.”
Furthermore he could ride Carman over country no matter how rough, and
the horse would never slip or stumble. It may in addition have been a
clever fencer, for we read that the knight “rode with reckless daring
at many obstacles” when mounted on his favourite steed.
In at least one work of fiction the Chevalier Bayard has been rather
amusingly confounded with the mythological steed of the four sons
of Aymon that bore the name Bayard and that used so conveniently to
grow larger when more than one of the four sons wanted to mount it at
the same time. The name is said to signify the colour of bright bay,
and the legend still obtains that a hoof mark of this mythical horse
remains to this day in the forest of Soignes, while another of its
hoof marks may be seen on a rock near Dinant. It was of this horse
that Sir Walter Scott wrote in _The Lady of the Lake_ the following
“Stand, Bayard, stand! The steed obeyed
With arching neck, and bended head,
And glaring eye and quivering ear,
As if he loved his lord to hear.”
The Earl of Warwick’s coal-black charger, Black Saladin, is eulogised
in almost every history of the Wars of the Roses; yet, when all is
said, Black Saladin does not appear to have done anything sufficiently
remarkable to have justified his earning the immortal reputation that
he undoubtedly has obtained. A big, powerful animal, it must in
justice be said of him that he carried his master creditably through
several rather bloody encounters before man and horse were killed in
the great conflict at Barnet.
According to Hume’s “History of England”—and probably no history
extant is more accurate in detail—Warwick, when he received the fatal
thrust, was fighting on foot.
No trustworthy description is obtainable of the horse that Joan of
Arc rode when she led the French army so successfully against the
previously victorious troops of Henry VI. Only one indisputable
statement relating to her leadership upon that famous occasion has
been handed down to us, and that is that she rode astride.
Pictures innumerable have been painted that depict her as she is
supposed to have appeared in the heat of the fray, and others that
show her to us as she ought to have looked when the engagement was
over. By basing our impressions solely upon such pictures we might
well conclude that the Pucelle went into action riding a white horse;
that in the thick of the fight she changed first on to a dun-coloured
mare and then on to a bright bay mare; and that when the engagement
was over she once more changed horses in order to ride back triumphant
on a stallion as black as Black Saladin himself!
According to Mr Douglas Murray, whose “History of Joan of Arc,”
published recently, is the most exhaustive and authoritative work we
have upon the career of that heroic young woman, Joan would appear to
have been quite a good horsewoman. “She rode horses so ill-tempered
that no one else would dare to mount them.” The Duke of Lorraine, also
the Duc d’Alençon, after seeing her skill in riding a course, each
gave her a horse; and we read also of the gift of a war horse from
the town of Orleans, and “many horses of value” sent from the Duke of
Brittany. She had entered Orleans on a white horse, according to the
_Journal du Siège d’Orleans_; but seems to have been in the habit of
riding black chargers in war; and mention is also made by Chatelain of
a “lyart” or grey.
A story, repeated in a letter from Guy de Laval, a grandson of
Bertrand du Guesclin, relates that on one occasion when her horse, “a
fine black war horse,” was brought to the door, he was so restive that
he would not stand still. “Take him to the Cross,” she said; and there
he stood, “as though he were tied,” while she mounted. This was at
Selles, in 1429.
Two famous horses of the fifteenth century were King Richard’s White
Surrey, and Savoy, the favourite steed of King Charles VIII. of
France, which was coal-black and took its name from the Duke of Savoy
from whom King Charles had received it as a present.
The king rode White Surrey frequently when travelling in state. That
he had many other white steeds seems obvious, and evidently he was
extremely partial to horses of that colour, for we find him telling
his nobles to use their influence to induce the wealthier section of
his subjects to breed and rear horses “white and grey.”
Savoy, though what we should to-day term a “good plucked” horse, is
said to have been “of mean stature,” also it had a blind eye. Charles
VIII. nevertheless rode it in preference to any other horse in his
stud, and that his stud was a very large one we are told by some of
the earlier historians.
Not a graceful horseman, he nevertheless had a firm seat, and it is
interesting to read that he was extremely sensitive upon the subject
of his horsemanship. So emphatically was this the case that upon one
occasion he severely rebuked one of his courtiers who had remarked
unwittingly in his presence that men existed who were physically
incapable of becoming good riders. According to this king, indeed, one
of the duties of every gentleman was to become proficient in the art
At about this time—that is to say towards the close of the fifteenth
century—a book that has since been rightly or wrongly described as
“the first work on sport ever issued in England” was published. When
first it appeared it attracted much attention. Printed for Dame
Julyana Berners, who evidently had much practical knowledge of horses
and the way to manage them, it mentions incidentally that every good
horse ought to possess the following fifteen “properties”:—
“Of a man:—bolde, prowde, and hardy.
Of a woman:—fayrbrested, fayr of heere, and easy
to leape upon.
Of a fox:—a fayr taylle, short eeres, with a good
Of a haare:—a grete eye, a dry hede, and well
Of an asse:—a bygge chyn, a flatte legge, and a
From the above list we may conclude that in spite of the unwieldy
appearance of most of the horses shown in the early drawings there
must have been plenty of active animals in England long before the
second half of the sixteenth century. Most likely the large and clumsy
horses belonged practically to the class that to-day we speak of as
shire horses, and that the majority were employed for carrying men in
armour, historians being unanimous in declaring that by the middle of
the sixteenth century a man of medium height could not, when sheathed
in armour, have weighed together with the armour worn by his horse
less than some thirty stone, and that often he must have weighed more.
This no doubt is the reason we read so frequently that in the
sixteenth century considerable attention was paid to breeding and
rearing great horses of Flanders, Friesland, France and Germany.
* * * * *
The majority of our historians seem not to have realised fully that
in Thomas Wolsey, afterwards Cardinal Wolsey, we had probably one of
the finest horsemen of the period of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. The
extreme brilliancy of Wolsey’s public career possibly may have caused
his lesser accomplishments to be eclipsed or over-looked, for that he
possessed minor accomplishments is well known.
It was in Henry VII.’s reign, and probably about the year 1500, that
Wolsey first had occasion to display his horsemanship in rather a
prominent manner. For we read that “the king, having received a
communication from the reigning emperor, Maximilian, and being at a
loss as to how he should reply to it in the shortest possible time,
turned abruptly to Thomas Wolsey to solicit his advice, Wolsey being
at that time the king’s chaplain; whereupon Wolsey replied without
hesitation that if the king would entrust him with a despatch he would
deliver it to the emperor with but little delay.”
After pondering the proposal for some moments, Henry accepted the
offer, and a little later handed to Wolsey a sealed packet, urging him
to convey it with all speed and not be hindered by anybody. This took
place, we are told, at Richmond, at about noon. Then and there the
chaplain mounted the horse he had ready, and rode away.
That he must have galloped almost all the way to Dover, changing
horses several times, is certain, for he arrived there on the
following morning before daylight. By noon on the day after he was
at Calais, and at nightfall he personally handed King Henry’s sealed
dispatch to the Emperor Maximilian. Having received Maximilian’s
reply, Wolsey at once mounted a fresh horse that had been saddled for
him and set out once more for Calais, which town he reached on the
same night, so that by the following evening he was again at Richmond.
The king, however, had already retired to rest, and Wolsey therefore
was compelled to wait until the morning to deliver Maximilian’s
reply. It so happened that he was walking in the park when presently
the king overtook him and at once began to upbraid him for his delay
in starting for France. Wolsey remained silent and collected until
the king had stopped speaking, then, without a word, he produced the
despatch that he had brought from Maximilian.
King Henry, we are told, was thereupon “both amazed and delighted,”
and with great rapidity the story of the chaplain’s remarkable ride to
Paris and back again was noised abroad.
Wolsey’s reputation for horsemanship was firmly established from that
time forward, and Henry, to mark his appreciation of the chaplain’s
exploit, bestowed upon him the deanery of Lincoln, and not long
afterwards made him his almoner. Thus did the man obtain his first
step to power who one day was to become the all-powerful Cardinal.
I have not been able to find in any books or documents particulars
concerning the horses ridden by Wolsey in that famous journey. From
what has been said, however, we may conclude that he rode horses of
a stamp very different from the heavy, clumsy animals so plentiful
in England at the time, for to have covered so many miles in so few
hours the horses must have been of the swiftest, especially when it is
remembered that the roads at that period were of the roughest possible
In later years, owing partly to his increasing weight, Wolsey almost
entirely gave up riding. Yet the interest that he had always taken
in horse breeding remained, and though his many and arduous duties
occupied much of his leisure he nevertheless found time to devote some
of his attention to the rearing of riding and driving horses, and to
the breeding of shire horses.
Some of his Eastern sires, indeed—and we know that he had a large stud
of them—are said to have been among the most valuable of the breeding
stock that until then had ever been known, which may have been the
reason that in after years Queen Elizabeth expended such vast sums
upon increasing and still further improving the stud that had been
Elizabeth, however, as we shall presently see, upon the whole took
greater interest in “running horses” than in the clumsy shire
stallions, and though it is said that she never was actually present
at a race meeting held at Newmarket, she is known to have owned
a number of race horses the majority of which were stabled near
Greenwich and trained chiefly upon Blackheath.
In connection with Wolsey and his undoubted fondness for horses, it
is interesting to learn that he cared but little for any form of
gambling, though “the sight of a contest between running horses of
high spirit delighted him.” Until the period when he gave up riding he
preferred at all times to be himself on horseback rather than watch
others, a statement that has been misinterpreted by one writer to mean
that Wolsey preferred to ride in races rather than watch others ride
races for him!
I believe I am right in saying that Wolsey never rode in any race of
any kind, also that he took more active interest in the chase than in
the turf—such turf, that is to say, as there was in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries to take interest in.
Upon that point Henry VII. held views somewhat different from his
chaplain’s. The spectacle afforded by a horse race gave him scant
gratification, and as a result he did little to develop and encourage
horse racing or to better the condition of the turf.
Probably the only ride in the nature of a horse race that did stir him
into displaying enthusiasm was Wolsey’s race just described. This feat
Wolsey but rarely spoke about, save when questioned by friends. His
technical knowledge of horses is said to have been profound, so much
so that frequently men quite unknown to him would come many miles to
obtain his opinion upon the condition of a sick horse, and usually he
was willing to tender advice even to strangers.
Indeed his willingness to be of service when a horse was in distress
appears to have remained one of Wolsey’s marked characteristics until
nearly the end of his life. Historians have for the most part depicted
him a stern, unbending man from the time he was made Cardinal; yet he
is known to have performed many small acts of kindness for which the
world probably did not give him credit.
Whether the advice he tendered in cases of horse sickness was
invariably sound is doubtful. The amazing ignorance of the anatomy of
the human body that prevailed four hundred years ago leads naturally
to the inference that ignorance of the anatomy of the horse must have
been even greater. Probably the advice tendered by Wolsey was about
upon a par in point of soundness with the advice that passed current
towards the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth
centuries for “wisdom in medicine and chirurgery.”
Certainly we do not find allusion made to such common modern ailments
in horses as spavins, navicular, ringbones and splints. Cracked heels
may have been a common frequent source of lameness, for the shoes
ordinarily used were clumsy, crude things knocked into shape in a
rudimentary way, even those with which the most valuable of horses
were commonly shod.
The horse breakers and trainers of the early part of the sixteenth
century seem to have been of one opinion as to the most effectual way
of, so to speak, bringing a horse to his senses, and that was the
simplest way of all—namely, by starving him!
That so barbarous, and, let it be added so wholly ineffectual a method
should have been resorted to where horses were concerned is perhaps
hardly to be wondered at when we bear in mind that only a little over
a century ago the same method was employed with lunatics who showed
signs of insubordination.
For the idea used to be—and it has not yet quite died out—that a high
temper must primarily be the outcome of high feeding. We read that
upon one occasion Henry VII. commanded that a horse he was to ride in
a public procession be left unfed for twenty-four hours, and as no
reason is assigned for the order we are justified in conjecturing that
he must have felt inwardly nervous, possibly that he feared the animal
might, if fed as usual, prove to be what we call to-day “a handful”!
In other respects the horses of some four hundred years ago would seem
to have been treated at any rate with ordinary humanity.
The accession of Henry VIII. to the throne, in 1509, marked the
beginning of a great development in the breeding and rearing of
valuable horses, for that erratic monarch, whatever his failings may
have been—and that he had a few failings we have reason to know—was at
heart a sportsman in the true meaning of the now frequently misused
We read that soon after ascending the throne “he took steps to arrange
for the importation from Italy, Spain, Turkey and elsewhere, at
regular intervals, of the best stallions and some of the best mares
procurable.” That done, he set to work to establish at Hampton Court
the Royal Stud which later was to become so famous, and among the many
horses he received as gifts—the majority from men anxious to keep in
favour with a monarch so all-powerful—were the famous mares “perfect
in shape and size” that Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua,
sent over in 1514, a gift to which he soon afterwards added “a Barb
worth its weight in silver” which he declared he had taken great pains
That Henry was deeply gratified is obvious from his remark that he
“had never ridden better trained horses,” and that “for years he had
not received such an agreeable present.”
* * * * *
As time went on, and the Royal Stud steadily increased, the fame of
Henry’s horses spread not only throughout the kingdom, but also across
the seas and into remote parts of the Continent, with the natural
result that presently attempts were made to obtain surreptitiously
foals known to have been bred in the famous paddocks.
Henry, upon hearing this, became extremely angry, and this knowledge
it probably was that in a measure prompted him to render illegal the
exportation beyond the seas of mares or horses bred in England, and,
in addition, to threaten with severe punishment anyone discovered
making the attempt.
There cannot, indeed, be any doubt that before the passing of this Act
many horses had been sent abroad from various parts of the country,
and that in consequence the British stock probably would soon have
depreciated in value had Henry not thus effectually put a stop to the
practice at the outset.
Yet we are told that in spite of this the king’s act greatly annoyed
several of the more powerful of his nobles, even that in some of the
provinces it led almost to open rebellion, many men of private means
having been in the habit of considerably augmenting their fortunes by
secretly exporting horses upon what was in those days deemed to be
rather a large scale.
So strong, indeed, did the feeling throughout the country gradually
grow, that in a short time it was decided to present the king with “a
request”—presumably what we should to-day term a petition—in the hope
that he might thereby be induced to revoke his rather arbitrary order.
Whether the request ever was presented does not appear, but certainly
Henry did not revoke the order.
On the contrary, soon after prohibiting the exportation of horses
beyond the seas he issued a supplementary edict which in effect
rendered the exportation of horses to any foreign port, with the
exception of Calais, a very grave offence; while the “exportation” of
horses into Scotland, and even the bare act of selling to any Scotsman
any horse without having first obtained the king’s permission to do
so, became an act of felony alike to vendor and purchaser.
Of course so unjust a law as the latter soon stirred up a strong
feeling of resentment amongst Henry’s subjects; yet in spite of their
bitter complaints they were compelled to comply with it.
Thus it soon came about that men who had been living comparatively in
opulence before the passing of these laws now found themselves reduced
to genteel poverty, whereupon, as if to add insult to injury, Henry
passed yet another statute—27, Henry VIII., c. 6.
This statute enacted that all farmers in receipt of a certain stated
income, also all owners of parks, as well as certain other persons,
should rear and keep a specified number of brood mares, of a height
not less than thirteen hands, the penalty for failing to comply with
the order being fixed at forty shillings a month.
The statute in addition commanded that upon every park of not less
than four miles in extent—this is understood to have meant four miles
in circumference—at least four mares should be kept, the same fine,
forty shillings a month, to be extorted from all who failed to keep
That these laws, though severe and unjust, achieved their purpose we
may conclude from the statement that soon after they had been passed
there were to be found in England five times more horses ready to be
put into the field in a case of emergency, and that these horses were
all of great value.
Yet once again an attempt was made to induce Henry to revoke his laws
forbidding the exportation of horses, and again the attempt proved
futile. The Scottish nation in particular felt deeply aggrieved at
what they somewhat naturally deemed to be an insult paid to them
by the king, but Henry, beyond threatening that if the complaints
continued he would put a stop to them in rather a forcible manner,
paid no heed whatever. And at just about this time it was that a
number of Lowlanders were, so it is alleged, severely punished for
purchasing horses of Englishmen in defiance of Henry’s command.
And still the king remained unsatisfied. He had openly declared that
he would transform England into the foremost country in Europe for
valuable and well-bred horses, and to facilitate his doing so he
presently passed another statute.
In this statute he commanded that stoned horses under fifteen hands
were not to be put to pasture in any wood or forest in certain
counties (which he mentioned), the penalty for breaking the law to be
forfeiture to the Crown, while in certain other counties the law was
to apply to horses under fourteen hands.
Yet another statute which he drew up—33, Henry VIII., c. 5—enacted
that dukes and archbishops must maintain seven stoned trotting horses
for the saddle; marquises, earls and bishops, five; and viscounts and
barons with incomes of not less than 1000 marks, five.
In the same way subjects with an income of 500 marks were each to
maintain two of these trotting horses for the saddle, while men with
an income of 100 marks, whose wives should “wear any gown of silk, or
any French hood or bonnet of velvet, with any habiliment, paste or
egg of gold, pearl or stone, or any chain of gold about their necks,
or in their partlets, or in any apparel on their body,” were by the
law compelled to maintain one saddle horse, severe penalties being
inflicted if they failed to do so.
I have somewhere seen it stated that these Acts were repealed by
Edward VI., but they were not. They were developed by William and
Mary, and further developed by Elizabeth. Upon each occasion the
renewal and development of these statutes caused bad blood and brought
forth threats of retaliation, but the latter were not carried out.
That the obvious injustice of laws so arbitrary should have created
friction, is not to be wondered at; yet the benefit that subsequently
accrued to the country through passing them was enormous.
Indeed it is more than likely that if Henry VIII., William and Mary,
and Elizabeth had given way to the demands of a great body of their
subjects between three and four hundred years ago, England would not
have become famous above all other countries for its horses, as it is
It was in the reign of Henry VIII. that riding matches first began
to acquire popularity, and to attract the attention of the “bloods”
of about that period. Several descriptions of the way in which such
matches were arranged and carried out are in existence, and perhaps a
brief account of rather a famous match that was ridden by Richard de
la Pole, the third Duke of Suffolk, against Seigneur Nicolle Dex, will
here prove of interest.
The Duke of Suffolk—“Blanche Rose” as his intimate friends called
him—was the third son of John de la Pole, his mother being the Lady
Elizabeth Plantagenet, Edward IV.’s and Richard III.’s sister.
In the year 1517, soon after the Duke had returned to Metz, the
popularity of the turf began suddenly to increase, and thus it
happened that the Duke presently became the possessor of a horse said
to be “very swift and of extreme value,” of which he boasted that it
could beat all comers. It was while talking thus in Metz one day that
Blanche Rose was taken at his word by the Seigneur Nicolle Dex, who
declared without hesitation that he could and would himself produce
and ride a horse against the Duke’s “from the Elm at Avegney to within
St Clement’s Gate,” for the sum of eighty crowns “and win easily.”
At once Blanche Rose accepted the challenge, promising at the same
time that he too would ride his own horse, and forthwith the stakes
were handed to “an independent and neutral person” by each of the
Arrangements having been made that the match should be run early in
the morning of St Clement’s Day, May 2nd, we read that, “a ce jour
meisme que l’on courre l’awaine et le baicon au dit lieu St Clement,”
the two riders, accompanied by many of their friends, went out through
St Thiebault’s gate, which had been opened before the usual time to
suit their convenience, “and so passed into the field for the race.”
There was much wagering on the result, and, as we should to-day
express it, the Duke’s mount was hot favourite. That Seigneur Nicolle
was no novice in race riding is made manifest by the statement that he
had taken the precaution to have his horse shod with extremely light
shoes, also that “he came into the field like a groom, in his doublet
and without shoes, and with no saddle but with a cloth tied round the
horse’s belly,” whereas the Duke wore comparatively heavy clothing and
rode in a heavy saddle.
The Duke’s horse, however, jumped away with the lead and retained
it during the first half of the race, “but when they were near St
Laidre his horse lagged behind, so that the Duke urged him on with
spurs until the blood streamed down on both sides; but it was in vain,
Nicolle gained the race and the hundred and sixty crowns of the sum.”
Several writers tell us that Nicolle Dex had trained his horse on
white wine, but the truth would seem to be that he himself trained on
white wine. We are informed, in addition, that the horse was not given
“Le dit Seigneur Nicolle n’avoit point donne de foin a son chevaulx,
ne n’avoit beu aultre chose que du vin blanc.”
What the horses of four hundred years ago were chiefly fed on is
uncertain. We know that usually they were given hay, but we find
mention made repeatedly of “horse bread.” Probably this horse bread
resembled the modern oil cake upon which cattle is fed, for we read
that it tended to make the horses’ coats “soft and glossy,” an
attribute of oil cake of which horse dealers are well aware.
It seems hardly necessary to mention in this connection that in
Henry VIII.’s time, and indeed down to a much later period, the art
of training horses, as we understand it to-day, was practically in
its infancy. Also we are able to infer that it was quite a common
practice to give a horse a drink of water just before running him in a
race, and that what we to-day allude to as the art of judging pace in
connection with race riding probably had never been even thought of.
In Henry VIII.’s reign the habit of naming horses after their breeder
on their previous owner would appear to have come into vogue rather
largely, and from that time onward, for some three centuries and a
half, to have remained in vogue. After that it became customary to
name race horses in rather a grotesque manner.
I have by me a list of names of race horses almost all of which must
have been animals well known in their time. It would be interesting
to hear what Messrs Weatherby would say if we asked them to-day to
enter a mare to run under the name “Pretty Harlot” or, better still,
“Sweetest when Naked”!
Among Henry VIII.’s famous barbs we find several mentioned by name,
and we read incidentally that “during four or six days the king rode
both Altobello and Governatore, but preferred Governatore.”
The Marquis of Mantua had been renowned for his skill in horsemanship,
as well as for the famous stud of horses that he possessed, for some
years before Henry VIII. came to the throne, and this stud is said
to have reached the acme of its excellence about the year 1517, when
Gonzaga, as the Marquis was generally called, received many more
requests for the service of his stallions than he was able to accede
Many, if not actually the majority of the horses that proved most
successful upon the turf during the sixteenth century are said to
have been descendants of the stock bred so carefully and with so much
discrimination by Gonzaga or by King Henry, from which we may conclude
that the assertion made often that until the reign of Queen Anne there
were no race horses in this country worth speaking of is erroneous.
It is said, apparently with truth, that Gonzaga became extremely angry
when, in the year 1515—only a few months after he had presented Henry
with the valuable horses already referred to—Ferdinand of Arragon sent
Henry “a gift of two most excellent horses,” with the message that
he, Ferdinand, believed they would be found to outclass even the fine
horses already in the royal stables at Hampton Court.
An apparently trivial incident such as this helps to show how
thoroughly in earnest the men of fortune must have been who early in
the sixteenth century devoted much time and attention to the breeding
and rearing of valuable horses. It has been alleged that the Marquis
of Mantua made his initial present of horses to King Henry solely
in order to ingratiate himself in royal favour; but the anxiety he
clearly displayed upon several occasions when gifts of horses were
sent to Henry by men of rank and fortune leads to the belief either
that Gonzaga must have been of a jealous nature, or else that he was
inordinately proud of his own stud and extremely desirous that its
high reputation should be maintained.
The value of the two horses sent over by Ferdinand is said to have
been approximately 100,000 ducats. That would seem to be an impossible
sum to have paid in a period when money was worth many times more
than it is to-day; but when we read that both horses were richly
caparisoned (_regio ornatu_) we may well suppose that the sum named
included also the cost of trappings.
Under the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that Ferdinand
of Arragon—Ferdinand the Catholic, as he was popularly called—should
have been deemed insane by a great body of his subjects when it became
known that he had sent so extravagant a gift to King Henry, his
So prevalent, indeed, was this impression, that reasons were at once
put forward to account for the alleged lack of intellect. Thus the
incident of his having been poisoned two years before by his new
queen, Germaine de Fois, was mentioned amongst possible causes, the
serious illness that followed having proved almost fatal.
Particulars of this attempt upon the life of Ferdinand the Catholic
are to be found in one of the letters of Peter Martyr, though the
writer of the letter does not seem to think that any insanity with
which the king may have been afflicted towards the close of his
life can have been due to the cause assigned. Indeed in one of these
letters he directly attributes the king’s death to over-indulgence
in hunting and matrimony, either of which, as he says, is liable to
hasten dissolution in a man over sixty years of age!
Not content with the very large and valuable stud that he now
possessed, Henry found it necessary in 1518 to send “a Bolognese
gentleman” out to Italy to choose still more horses for him there,
special instructions being given to him that the best animals he
could find in Italy must be bought at once, irrespective of cost,
and shipped across to England without undue delay—an order that
the Bolognese gentleman “obeyed implicitly and to the king’s great
satisfaction as well as to his own.” There may well be a hidden
meaning in the last words!
We do not hear anything more that is of interest and that has to do
with Henry’s stud until the year 1526, when we read that “eighteen of
the finest of his horses were sent by King Henry VIII. as a gift to
Francis I.” The reason he sent so many is not stated, nor are we told
if these were chargers, race horses or great horses.
After that the sending of gift horses apparently became an established
custom amongst men of rank and of wealth, as well as amongst
potentates, so much so that persons of quality vied one with another
in sending gifts of valuable horses to their friends.
The last present of the sort received by Henry VIII. consisted of
twenty-five Spanish horses sent to him by the emperor, Charles V., in
Hunting is known to have been one of Henry’s favourite amusements, and
in a despatch dated 10th September 1519, written by Giustinian when
Venetian Ambassador to England, we are informed that when Henry hunted
he invariably rode several horses, or, in the words of the despatch,
“never took that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses, which
he caused to be stationed beforehand along the line of country he
meant to take.”
From this and similar statements it has been inferred that the hounds
Henry hunted with ran some artificial line, that otherwise the horses
could not have been stationed “beforehand along the line of country he
meant to take.” The probability, however, is that the king’s horses
were stationed at different points all over the country to be hunted,
for it seems impossible that the king, heavy man though he undoubtedly
was, could alone have ridden eight or ten horses to a standstill in a
single day’s hunting!
Indeed in Henry III.’s reign the men who hunted regularly most likely
rode more than one horse a day, just as most hunting men do now. At
that period the sport was, of course, very different from our modern
foxhunting, and from the descriptions of it that have been handed down
to us there is reason to believe that plenty of Henry’s nobles hunted
not because they were fond of the sport, but because they deemed it
diplomatic to appear to be wholeheartedly as devoted to the chase as
the king himself most certainly was.
Yet the king apparently was not hoodwinked as easily as he may have
appeared to be, or feigned to be, for upon more than one occasion he
availed himself of opportunities to make some of his sycophants look
remarkably ridiculous in public.
In this connection an interesting little story is narrated of Sir
Miles Partridge, a knight who figured rather largely in Henry VIII.’s
reign. Apparently Sir Miles had more than once writhed in silence
beneath the king’s gibes, though all the while impatiently awaiting an
opportunity to retaliate in a dignified way.
The opportunity came at last, when the king, in a merry mood,
suggested to the knight that he should dice with him. This happened at
about the time when the monasteries were being dissolved, and Henry’s
coffers were in consequence unusually well replenished. At first the
king won persistently; then suddenly his luck deserted him, with the
result that in the end he lost control of his temper and with an oath
shouted at Sir Miles that he would stake upon a single throw of the
dice the great bells of St Paul’s against a hundred sovereigns.
The dice were thrown, and Sir Miles won, and the bells, described by a
chronicler of the period as “the greatest peal in England,” were taken
away and melted down, to the knight’s unfeigned delight.
It is said that the king never forgave Sir Miles Partridge for this.
Later Sir Miles was charged with some criminal offence and imprisoned,
and in 1551 he was beheaded on Tower Hill.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the horse continued to figure
largely in romance, and thus it comes that we find horses, fictitious
and otherwise, playing important rôles in the works of fiction of the
principal authors of about that period.
Ariosto’s immortal narrative of “Orlando Furioso,” written towards
the close of the fifteenth or in the beginning of the sixteenth
century, has given us “the little vigilant horse,” Vegliantio, called
Veillantif in the French romance, where Orlando appears as Ronald.
Then we have “the horse of the golden bridle,” Orlando’s remarkable
charger, Brigliadoro, whose speed equalled Bajardo’s; also Sacripant’s
steed, Frontaletto, “the horse with the little head,” that was capable
of doing many extraordinary things. Sacripant, who was King of
Circassia, and a Saracen, held secret consultations with Frontaletto,
and the horse could understand its master’s every word.
Rinaldo’s horse, Bajardo, made famous in Ariosto’s celebrated book,
was a bright bay and very fast, and at one time it had belonged to
Amadis of Gaul. When Malagigi, the wizard, found it in the cave
guarded by “a dragon of great size,” he at once, at considerable
personal risk, attacked the dragon, which in the end he succeeded in
According to the legend, Bajardo is still alive, but under no
circumstances can man approach it, nor will any man ever do so. Though
Bajardo figures in several stories, it occurs first in “Orlando
The original of Rinaldo was the son of the fourth Marquis d’Este,
and Malagigi was Rinaldo’s cousin. The habit of drawing fictitious
characters to resemble closely living persons, or well-known persons
of a previous period, was very prevalent among the writers of the
sixteenth century, and therefore it often is difficult to disassociate
the real from the fictitious character.
This may be said too of the horses that we come upon in some of the
better-known of the old-world romances.
Indeed in several stories that could be named, the famous chargers of
notable princes can be recognised under several assumed names.
With the close of Henry VIII.’s reign—that is, in 1547—we come to
an end of what was without doubt a period in which the horse played
a more conspicuous part than it had done since the Norman Conquest.
Upon ascending the throne Henry had found the condition of horse
breeding in this country in rather a bad way. With others, as we have
seen, he had set to work in earnest to improve, to the best of his
ability, the breed of English horses, and though some of the statutes
that he enacted—also some of the methods to which he had recourse in
order to accomplish his object—undoubtedly were drastic, directly and
indirectly they helped to bring about the improvement he desired, and
for this the nation still owes him a debt of gratitude.
Henry’s fondness for the chase was equalled only by the keen interest
he took in the rather primitive horse racing of his period, and
trustworthy chroniclers tell us that one of his most cherished
ambitions was to see established in England a stud of the fastest
horses the world had ever known.
When we bear in mind his fondness for horses of all kinds it seems
strange that he should not have been a first-rate judge of a horse.
Of knowledge of a horse’s anatomy he had practically none, for
which reason his ignorance in this respect has been contrasted with
the knowledge that Wolsey possessed. Once, indeed, when taxed with
ignorance upon this point by one of his nobles he laughed heartily
and admitted the impeachment.
The order, already referred to, that horses should not be sent across
the border, or sold to Scotsmen, almost completely crippled the
horse-breeding industry north of the Tweed. True, some of the more
powerful of the Scottish clans still owned valuable breeding stock,
yet so strictly were Henry’s laws enforced that the chiefs even of
those clans were, with but few exceptions, unable to buy English
stallions or to obtain their services at any time during Henry’s reign.
As a well-known Scottish historian has aptly put it, “Henry VIII.
practically ruined Scotland so far as that country’s prosperity had
to do with the rearing of horses for the field, an unfair form of
oppression that many Highlanders, and also Lowlanders, have not yet
Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that so far as we are able to
judge from the records of the early historians the men of Scotland
have not, as a body, ever proved themselves to be such finished
horsemen as the English, and more especially the Irish.
This statement is not made in the least in a captious spirit. Why
should it be? Probably the reason the Scotch are, as a nation, less
finished horsemen, is that they are men of large bone, considerable
weight and great physical strength.
Historical records serve to show that no race of men so built ever
has been particularly famous for finished horsemanship. For a man to
be a finished horseman need not necessarily possess great physical
strength, and the man of heavy build almost invariably finds himself
at a disadvantage when on horseback by comparison with the man of
spare frame, small bone and “flat” thighs. Though this is something of
a truism, several of our early historians apparently forgot it.
A study of the world’s history makes it clear that the tribes, races
and nations especially renowned for their horsemanship have been
composed for the most part of men of small stature.