The word “knight” conjures up visions of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Mordred, Merlin, Guinevere and the castle Camelot. King Arthur and the romanticized tales that surround him and his knights include a lot of fantasy and fiction. Putting the whimsy aside, let’s look at the real knights and their horses of the Middle or Medieval ages, that period of European history encompassing the 5th to the 15th centuries.
Knighthood in the Middle Ages was closely linked with horsemanship and knights had to: “Protect the weak, defenseless and fight for the general welfare of all.” They also had to act in courteous, chivalrous and honourable behavior and the word “chivalry” actually comes from the French word “chevalier” implying “skills to handle a horse.”
Jousting for Glory and Death
A man was granted the honourary title of knighthood by a monarch or other political figure for service to a king or to his country in a military capacity. If a knight was wealthy or became wealthy he might have multiple horses: some for travelling, others trained for battle charges and more for the dangerous sport of jousting or lists where he could prove his ability in the saddle. Jousting was based on battle attacks with long lances, common in the 14th century, and became popular entertainment in the late Middle Ages. While often depicted as glamorous with knights riding for the attention of their favourite court ladies, in truth jousting was perilous and often fatal to both horse and rider.
Heavy Metal: Barding for War Horses
In early battles and jousting tournaments soldiers braved it out in leather and chain mail armour, riding small horses as seen in the Bayeux tapestry of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But as the metal armour became heavier and more cumbersome, a sturdier, stronger horse was required and the fast, light horses were replaced with massive cold-blooded horses of France, Flanders and England. The bulky armour laden knights then controlled these bigger horses with weight shifting, spurs and bits that today would be seen as instruments of torture. But, as a knight’s metal armour became more effective protection for him, it was then the horse that became a target for the enemies. The answer lay in the creation of barding or horse armour and the horse now had to carry his own heavy metal protection along with that of his metal clad rider and, if in “full bard” was laden with multiple pieces.
Champron: Originally the champron or face guard originated in ancient Greece and was made of boiled leather. In the 12th century the boiled leather version was replaced by metal and might have included hinged cheek pieces. Some knights had a spike attached to the champron between the ears and flanges often covered the eyes.
Croupiere: The croupiere originally was made to protect the horse’s hindquarters and could be made from leather, chain mail or plate. Today the term crupper is used to describe a leather strap that reaches from the back of the saddle and goes under a tail usually on a rotund pony to prevent the saddle from slipping forward.
Criniere: The criniere was a set of segmented plates that protected the horse’s neck. These articulated lames pivoted on loose rivets; one set covered the mane and the other the neck. They were attached to the champron and the peytral that protected the horse’s chest.
Flanchard: The flanchard protected the horse’s flanks and attached to either side of the saddle. These would have been made of metal plates that were riveted to leather or boiled leather that was then treated with beeswax.
Caparison: A caparison was sometimes used with barding and was a cloth cover that extended from nose to tail and down to the ground and was often embroidered with a knight’s coat of arms.
Rein Barding: Metal plates or chain mail were sometimes riveted or wrapped around reins so that they could not be cut in battle.
Did You Know?
The word joust comes from an Old French verb joster, and before that from Latin juxtare that means “to approach, to meet”. Tilting is another word for jousting and comes from Old English word tylte or tealt meaning ‘to totter unsteadily.’
Specialized jousting armour weighing 50 kg (100lb) was created in the late 15th and early 16th century and was actually heavier than battle armour which weighed about half that. It greatly restricted free movement; its sole purpose was to protect the rider from the body shattering blow of a lance coming at him from his galloping opponent.