“Observing this, [Duke] William gave a signal to his troops, that, feigning flight, they should withdraw from the field. By means of this device the solid phalanx of the English opened for the purpose of cutting down the fleeing enemy and thus brought upon itself swift destruction; for the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled them to fly. In this manner, deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in avenging their enemy; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, for, by frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps.”
The above passage from William of Malmesbury on the Battle of Hastings in 1066 demonstrates the power of the medieval warhorse to its greatest effect. When an enemy had broken formation and scattered, it was then that the cavalry had its greatest advantage and the knights on their horses — the animals snorting and charging and hooves thundering against the earth — were the most terrifying.
Described by Andrew Ayton as “an equestrian age of war,” Western Europe during the Middle Ages saw a shift in warfare from the standardized foot infantry of the Roman army to the mounted warrior clad in mail and helm brandishing lance, sword, and shield.
While light cavalry had been used in battle for centuries, the rise of heavy cavalry and mounted shock combat came about during the medieval period, and though uncertain as to when the first actual use of mounted shock combat occurred, it was in wide use by the mid 12th century, and we also know from records of the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror employed heavy cavalry charges against Harold’s troops atop Senlac Hill.
So what exactly was a medieval warhorse? Often referred to as a “destrier,” the medieval warhorse cannot be confined to any one breed of horse today. True warhorses no longer exist, as they were specially bred during their time for a specific purpose and that purpose is no longer used in combat today. A common depiction of warhorses in movies is something of a draught horse type breed such as a Scotish Clydesdale or English Shire horse or French Percheron. While destriers were most certainly large — they were often referred to as “great” horses — for they needed to be large in order to carry a rider with his suit of armor and weapons, they were not bred to the size of draught horses, though Joseph and Frances Gies in Life in a Medieval Castle argue the later Percheron and Belgian draft horses were descended from these medieval destriers.
Excavations of armor, saddles, and other horse fittings indicate the medieval warhorse was comparable in size to a modern riding horse. Though bred to be stronger than a modern riding horse, they were probably no larger than fourteen to fifteen hands high, with one hand being equal to four inches. The idea of a medieval warhorse standing eighteen hands tall (nearly six feet tall at the shoulders) is what authors Christopher Harper-Bill, Ruth E. Harvey, and Stephen Church call a “myth.” In their book Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood, they contend a horse of this size would have been very rare. Illustrations and carvings from the medieval period depict the destrier as a large and powerful horse, but not nearly as massive as a draught horse.
There are some breeds of horses, such as the Holstein in Germany and the Norman in France, that still retain very similar traits and attributes to the medieval destrier, but it is the Norman Cob, a sub-breed of the Norman, that is most likely the closest descendant.
As the usefulness of the knight began to decline, due in part to the proficiency of the English longbowmen and the development of gunpowder, the usefulness of breeding powerful warhorses also declined. With the ushering in of a new era, the medieval warhorse disappeared forever.
William of Malmesbury from the Medieval Sourcebook: The Battle of Hastings, 1143.
Ayton, Andrew. Knights and Warhorses. Woodbridge, Eng.: The Boydell Press, 1999.
Harper-Bill, Christopher and Ruth E. Harvey and Stephen Church. The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood. Boydell & Brewer, 1986.
Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.
Baker, Alan. The Knight. Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.
Gies, Joseph and Francis. Life in a Medieval Castle. Harper Perennial, 1979.
“Horses in the Middle Ages.” Wikipedia.org <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_horses#Horses_in_warfare>
*this wikipedia article is a good reference, as it cites many sources in its bibliography