In the course of my research for my Medieval Warriors series, I learned a lot of surprising things about the horses the Norman knights rode. For example, horses were not so much distinguished by breed as by use. There were highly trained warhorses like destriers, strong coursers, smooth-gaited palfreys for lords and ladies, and general purpose rounceys. Knights did not, for the most part, ride their warhorses around the countryside, at least not very often. They rode palfreys, high-status riding horses.
Warhorses—destriers and coursers—were trained for combat and reserved for battle and tournaments. They were difficult to handle. The courser was preferred over the destrier as it was light, fast, steady and strong—and less expensive. You can get a rough idea of the warhorses from illustrations of the period, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, which is actually an embroidery sewn in the 11th century and meant to depict the events that surrounded the Conquest.
Destriers and coursers were stallions trained for charging and putting up with the shock of impacts. They had to be maneuverable, too, but with the strength to bear a knight’s weight in battle. (Though the chain mail was much lighter in the 11th century than the mail and plate armor that came later.) In King’s Knight, Alexander has both a destrier and a palfrey. Palfreys were trained to be gentle, excellent horses for riding and hunting. Ladies rode the smooth-gaited palfrey, too, either astride or pillion (sitting sideways and having their horse led by a groom).
While the origin of the medieval warhorse is not clear, it is thought they had some Barb and Arabian blood through the Spanish Jennet, a forerunner to the modern Friesian and Andalusian horse. Today, breeds that have similar bloodlines include the Welsh Cob, the Friesian, the American Quarter Horse, a stocky Morgan and the Andalusian.
The Spanish-Norman horse, like both the Percheron and the Andalusian, is predominantly gray in color, and is the horse Sir Renaud (“the Red Wolf”) rides in The Red Wolf’s Prize. It is known that William the Conqueror was gifted a Spanish stallion at one point and so it occurred to me that a favored knight might also receive one as a gift from his lord.
In addition to palfreys, nobles rode the general purpose rounceys, but not typically knights, although knights might use them in a pinch. There were also horses for the hunt and the race that were fast and had stamina. And there were workhorses (common plough horses), and cart horses bred for hauling things.
When the battle was over, the knight would leave his warhorse and his helm with his squire and ride off on a palfrey, a much more manageable horse than his often mean-spirited warhorse, and one that had a smoother gait making for a better ride.
William the Conqueror shipped horses across the English Channel when he invaded England in 1066—as many as thousand or more. And his son, William Rufus, who was King of England after the Conqueror’s death, shipped horses to Normandy when he was at war with his brothers, Robert and Henry.
Unlike the English, who rode their horses to battle and then dismounted to fight on foot, the Normans most often fought on horseback. It is also why they fought using longer swords than the English and their shields were kite shaped. The outcome of the Battle of Hastings has been described as “the inevitable victory of stirrupped cavalry over helpless infantry.”
I hope you enjoy my Medieval Warriors series and now you'll know why I have my characters riding the horses they do!
And on my Website.