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Representational image of jousting horses. Source: Public domain

Jousting Horses Ridden by English Knights Came from Mainland Europe

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Jousting was a popular sport among elites in medieval England, as anyone who has ever read a book or watched a movie about English knights in the Middle Ages is well aware. Jousters wore thick armor and carried long and sturdy wooden lances during these spirited combat-simulating contests, riding on the backs of powerful and highly trained jousting horses bred to support a heavy load.

Needless to say, the strongest, tallest and fastest jousting horses were prized by knights who competed in such competitions, since these animals were so essential to success in their matches. As the results of a newly published study reveal, English knights were so determined to find the best jousting horses that they often chose animals imported from other parts of Europe, including northern Italy and Switzerland.

This discovery emerged from a high-tech chemical analysis of the teeth of dozens of medieval horses buried in a horse cemetery excavated in an open field between Westminster Abbey and the Thames River. While this cemetery was discovered three decades ago, it was only now that a team of archaeologists from the United Kingdom, France and the United States were able to prove that it was reserved for the horses of medieval aristocrats, and that they had the will and the resources to import these animals from thousands of miles away.

“Our results provide direct and unprecedented evidence for a variety of horse movement and trading practices in the Middle Ages and highlight the importance of international trade in securing high-quality horses for medieval London elites,” the study authors wrote in a new article about their research just published in Science Advances.

Jousting horses depicted in the Codex Manesse. (Public domain)

Jousting horses depicted in the Codex Manesse. (Public domain)

When it Came to Jousting Horses, England’s Medieval Elites Spared No Expense

Seeking to uncover data about the origins and life histories of the horses owned by English elites in medieval times, the international team of researchers looked at remains that had been recovered from a medieval horse burial ground discovered on Elverton Street in the City of Westminster in London. Such cemeteries have been rare in all historical times, and it seems this one was reserved for the horses owned and ridden by people in elite circles, who had the power and the influence to make sure their favorite animals were given proper and respectful burials.

The ultra-rare site was discovered in the 1990s, in an open field less than a kilometer (0.62 miles) from Buckingham Palace. While performing exploratory excavations in anticipation of the construction of an apartment complex at that time, archaeologists unearthed 197 burial pits plus the skeletal remains of approximately 70 horses, all of which had been buried sometime in the Middle Ages.

After examinations of the remains began, it didn’t take long for the researchers involved in the new study to realize these horses had been rather extraordinary. “These animals are big and physically robust for medieval horses,” study co-author Oliver Creighton, an archaeologist from the University of Exeter, stated in an interview with Science.  He noted that the “the evidence really points to them being jousting horses.”

The evidence he references includes the geographical context of the find, which placed the cemetery close to the royal palace and very near what is known to have been an area where jousting matches were sponsored. Also, the vertebrae of some of the animals were found to have been fused, which was a normal result for medieval horses asked to carry heavily armored knights around for significant periods of time. Additionally, one of the horse’s teeth was found with a pattern of wear that was typically caused by the specialized bits used by elite horse riders in the jousting era.

Modern-day reenactment of a jousting tournament, with two knights on jousting horses. (david / Adobe Stock)

Modern-day reenactment of a jousting tournament, with two knights on jousting horses. (david / Adobe Stock)

Dental Analysis Reveals Origins of Jousting Horses

To discover where the animals actually came from, which was the main point of this study, the researchers measured oxygen, strontium and carbon isotope levels in enamel samples taken from the horses’ teeth. They obtained these samples by using a laser to scrape off layers of enamel that were just 15 microns apart, which would allow them to track changes in isotope levels over time.

Isotopes from different chemical elements are absorbed by people and animals whenever they drink water, ultimately becoming fixed in the bones and teeth. Since water around the world has different quantities and ratios of the various measurable isotopes, the researchers knew it would be possible to identify horses that came from outside the United Kingdom by looking closely at the isotope contents of their skeletal remains.

In many of the jousting horses, the isotope mixtures in their teeth indicated a Scandinavian or continental European origin. “Fifty percent of the horses we looked at came from a long way off,” said study author Alexander Pryor, an archaeological scientist from the University of Exeter.

The climate zone these horses came from was similar to England. Based on their knowledge of where fine horses were bred in the Middle Ages, the researchers concluded that the animals must have been imported from northern Italy and Switzerland, undoubtedly at great expense.

The scientists determined in one case that a particular horse, whose teeth they tested, had transitioned to drinking London-area water at the age of 1.5 to two years old. This would have been an ideal age to import horses bred for strength, speed and endurance, as they would have just been reaching their physical peak.

The study into the origins of jousting horses used in England was based on the analysis of the teeth of dozens of medieval horses unearthed at a horse cemetery near Westminster Abbey. (martin / Adobe Stock)

The study into the origins of jousting horses used in England was based on the analysis of the teeth of dozens of medieval horses unearthed at a horse cemetery near Westminster Abbey. (martin / Adobe Stock)

Unearthing Hidden Facts about Medieval Horse Culture

The fascination of medieval English elites with jousting is well-known. Henry VIII, for example, was obsessed with the sport, only quitting after a jousting-related accident in 1536 in which he suffered severe injuries after falling off his horse.

As could be imagined, their deep interest in jousting made it even more urgent for medieval English knights to secure the strongest, swiftest and most reliable jousting horses they could find. “Procuring high-quality horses for labor, war, travel and tournaments was of paramount importance,” the study authors wrote.

“Historical sources indicate that the King and other high-ranking elites expended great effort and resources to breed, train, and otherwise acquire the best horses in England and abroad, but to date, insight into horse-trading and mobility has only been possible in a limited way through documentary sources, which are patchy and inconsistent.”

One surviving text that does reveal some details about royal equine ownership is the Equitium Regis. This aged document lists hundreds of horses that belonged to the royal family specifically in the late 1200s and early 1300s, and in many instances the horses’ geographic origins were included alongside their names.

Based on this type of record, it has long been assumed that medieval elites in England were importing at least some of their horses from other places. But until now archaeological research has uncovered little evidence to prove that this was the case. That’s why the results of the new study are so groundbreaking and impactful, as they have finally provided definitive proof of how determined English medieval knights were to find the best horses money could buy.

Excited by the results of their historical detective work, the researchers plan to apply their techniques to the study of horse skeletons excavated elsewhere in the United Kingdom, especially those that have been dated to medieval times. This will allow them to learn more about the horses that were ridden by average people, who would have relied on their animals for transportation and to help them with various agriculture-related duties. Presumably these animals wouldn’t have been imported, but until some actual research is done archaeologists will never know for sure.

Top image: Representational image of jousting horses. Source: Public domain

By Nathan Falde

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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