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Friday, May 15, 2015

Crusader Horses: Destriers, Palfreys and Pack-Horse

Horses were an absolutely essential — indeed defining — component of a knight’s equipment. The German word for knight (ritter) derives directly from the word for rider (reiter), while the French and Spanish terms, chevalier and caballero, derive from the word for horse (cheval and caballo respectively). While a knight might temporarily be without a mount, without a horse a knight could not fulfill his fundamental function as a cavalryman. Indeed, the symbol of knighthood was not the sword (infantrymen had those as well) or even the lance (they were throw away pieces of equipment), but the (golden) spurs tied to his heels during the dubbing ceremony. Richard Barber notes in his seminal work The Knight and Chivalry that being financially in a position to outfit oneself with arms and horses was crucial to knightly status. David Edge and John Miles Paddock argue in their comprehensive work Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight that “[a knight’s horse] was the most effective and significant weapon the knight had; the basis of his pre-eminent position in society and on the battlefield.” 

In short, knights needed horses — significantly not just one horse but several.  This short post provides a overview of a knight's equine needs.

The warhorse or destrier, is the most obvious of a knight’s horses. This was the horse a knight rode into battle, joust or tournament. This horse was his fighting platform. It was trained to endure the shock and noise of combat. In later years, destriers were sometimes also trained to lash out at enemies with teeth and hooves thereby becoming, as Edge and Paddock note, a weapon as well as a fighting platform. Knights rode stallions, not mares or geldings. This was in part because stallions were considered more aggressive, but also because riding a mare or a gelding detracted from a knight’s image as a virile warrior.

Destriers had to be strong because they needed to support a fully armored knight and because they had to withstand the press of horseflesh in a charge and endure uninjured the impact of charges by other horses. They particularly had to have powerful haunches to absorb the shock of frontal collisions with enemy cavalry or in a joust. This does not mean, however, that destriers were massive, heavy horses similar to modern draught horses.  Archeological and artistic evidence suggests that the warhorses of crusader knights were no more than 14-15 hands high (a hand is four inches and horses are measured at the withers, the bone over the shoulders at the base of the neck).  Furthermore, they had to be very responsive to their riders, and that means sensitive and agile. They can best be compared to modern quarter horses.

Destriers were not a specific breed of horse, so arguably the defining characteristic of a destrier was simply its function — and price. If a knight thought a horse had what it took to be a fine destrier, he was willing to pay a large premium for that — and anyone in possession of a horse with the necessary qualities was going to ask a commensurate price for it as well.  In short, destriers were outrageously expensive. They cost 4 to 8 times the price of lesser or ordinary horses. They cost as much as the armor a knight wore. They could cost as much as the annual knight’s fee — in short roughly the annual income of the gentry.  The equivalent is the price of a top-line BMW or Mercedes today.

Like any horse, destriers were vulnerable to colic and injury, however, which meant a knight was well advised to have more than one destrier — if he could afford it.  Even if he could and did, however, he was likely to have a favorite. The destriers of knights in contemporary romance and legend all have names: Baucent, Folatise, Babieca etc., but perhaps no description is more famous that the Dauphin’s praise for his horse before Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V. “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots on air; the earth sings when he touches it…. It is a beast for Perseus: he is pure air and fire….”

For all their value and importance, however, a knight spent far less time mounted on his prized destrier than on his palfrey(s). Palfreys were riding horses, transportation not weapons, the means of getting from point A to point B. Since medieval knights rode everywhere -- to oversea their estates, to visit neighbors, when hunting or hawking, to attend court or to go courting. In short, a knight spent literally countless hours with his palfrey(s). Palfreys were bred not for strength and fierceness but for smooth gates, endurance and common sense. They were probably much the same size as destriers, but lighter — marathon runners rather than sprinters, wrestlers more than boxers. 

Since these horses were just as likely to get colic or injured, the need for more than one palfrey was just as compelling as with destriers, but given the substantially lower price of palfreys the possession of more than one was considerably more common. Knights would normally have possessed at least two and wealthy nobles likely had stables of horses at their disposal for transport purposes.

The last and lowliest of a knight’s horses was his sumpter or packhorse. These were essential for transporting equipment, notably armor when it wasn't being worn.  A knight did not travel light. He needed a tent for camping out, a bedroll for sleeping on, basic utensils for cleaning, grooming and cooking, a change or two of clothes, supplies of food and — in more arid climates — water as well. Depending on the purpose and duration of travel, a knight might even take with him simple furnishings to ensure comfort while on campaign or travelling long distances. All that was carried on pack animals, either sumpter horses, mules or donkeys. We know little about these poor beasts of burden beyond that they were common and cheap. They were “hacks” largely interchangeable, nameless, and unloved. 

See the medieval world through the eyes of a horse! Follow “A Destrier’s Tale” on:

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  1. In modern comparison, I think I'd prefer a half-breed for my Destrier: Half Quarter Horse, half Morgan. The Quarter Horse supplies the required agility, the Morgan the strength for toting all of that armor.

  2. Good choice -- and it underlines the fact that these horses weren't a specific breed but individual horses that brought particular strengths with them. In my experience the most important traits are the ones you can see either, but the character of the horse. Whether he's willing, trustworthy, has strong nerves and a big heart.

  3. I am breeding gascony chargers or destrier gascons. Archeological evidence as well as written illustrations show us, as you have so rightly said that they were relatively small animals by todays standards. The Great warhorse that came later on was an animal bred for size and did not need to be taken on crusades in the hold of a smallish ship.

  4. tells a lot of information for my project. Good comparisons. really like this blog

  5. I hope comments are still being answered on this blog, as horses are my passion. I was wondering about Crusaser horse types, and noted in one of the earlier videos of Real Crusader History, that supporting lords and knights had remarked on the spirit and stamina of the mounts that the Turks rode. I know most think of Arabian horses as being hot-blooded and hard to control, but a lot depends on the blood line. A relative of mine breeds Arabians that are descended from a stud and mares gifted to a Polish noble, and they are considerably more sensible than the pure Egyptian bloodlines. At any rate, do you know of specific incidents of Crusaders obtaining Arabians for breeding to their destriers, to increase intelligence and stamina perhaps? Thank you in advance should you choose to answer.

    1. There a fun novel based on this premise (whose title escapes me at the moment but I'll post it if/when I remember), but I have not personally seen historical evidence of such inter-breeding. We know, however, that captured Arab horses were an important "spoils of war" and that they all belonged to the king, who then re-distributed them to knights/turcopoles who had lost horses in combat for the crown. The king's obligation to replace wounded and killed horses was called "restor" and was one of the unique features of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Since the Arabs did ride mares, the opportunity for inter-breeding would have been considerable and, I suspect, irresistible. We also know of specific incidents in which the Saracens gave horses as gifts. Allegedly, al-Adil sent one (or two depending on account) horse(s) to King Richard I at the battle of Jaffa.

      Ultimately, knights depended heavily on their horses and were always looking for the best possible horseflesh. Interbreeding was an obvious option. But, again, I have not personally seen a record of a specific incident.

    2. I found the novel! It is "A Stallion at Sunrise" by Martyn Whitlock. You might enjoy it.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. There is a record of cross breeding at the preceptory in Clonoulty


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