Horses in Early Anglo-Saxon England

In the popular image of the Anglo-Saxon, horses aren’t always the first thing that comes to mind. However, the evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxons and indeed the Germanic world placed great value on horses, revering them as constant companions that they would even take with them into the next world.

Equestrian burial is relatively common among the elites of Early-Medieval Germanic society – with over 600 burials containing sets of horse-related equipment or horses themselves dating from the Merovingian period on the continent.

Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons reenactors

Although less common, Anglo-Saxon horse-related burials have been found as well. In England, there are thirty-one archaeological finds of inhumed horses and twelve instances of riding equipment within burials as grave goods. Most of these are elite male warrior burials interred with weapons and other high-status objects.


Equestrian Regalia: Decorated harnesses and trappings

Just as Anglo-Saxon elites chose to bedeck themselves with gold and silver fittings and jewellery, intricately decorated with knot work and beasts, so too were their horses similarly adorned. The highest status burials contained decorated harnesses or bridles, with mounts set on the brow, nose-band, and cheek-straps of the harness. 

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These mounts were cast in copper-alloy and then either gilded in gold or silver, sometimes both in the earlier bichrome examples. It is easy to imagine how these harnesses would glitter and gleam in the sunlight as the horse tossed it’s head, symbolising to all the power and status of its rider.

An Anglo-Saxon horse in full ‘regalia’, including a high-bowed parade saddle. Image: Chris Fern, 2005.
An Anglo-Saxon horse in full ‘regalia’, including a high-bowed parade saddle. Image: Chris Fern, 2005.

This also illustrates the importance of these horses to their rider, who chose to outfit them in all the finery he could afford. It is also possible to see a change in fashions in the way horse harnesses were decorated.

Between the sixth and seventh centuries, the shapes of harness mounts changed, and disc-shaped mounts began to replace the earlier cruciform shaped mounts. Along with the shape, decoration styles also change from Salin’s Style I to Style II. These are well documented Germanic art styles, the typology of which help to date decorated metalwork finds. 

These disc-shaped mounts feature incredibly elaborate chip-carved decoration and knot work, which is often found on the military attire of the buried riders themselves in the form of buckles and sword-pommels.


The gilded copper-alloy disc mount from Faversham is a particularly fine example and an object like this, mounted on the brow of a fine horse, would have been dazzling.

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 An interesting set of functional fittings sometimes found along with bridles are rein-sliders and ring-links attached to the reins, which may have enabled the rein-length to be adjusted while on horse-back.

The gilded copper-alloy disc mount from Faversham, found along with an iron bridle bit. Image: British Museum
The gilded copper-alloy disc mount from Faversham, found along with an iron bridle bit. Image: British Museum

This may have been useful in a military context in order to shorten the reins during battle. Which gives the necessary greater control over the horse and the ring-link may even have allowed the reins to be secured on to the saddle, freeing the hands to a shield and spear, sword or javelin.

In the latter case, this would require control of the horse using the legs and seat or verbal cues, indicating considerable control and high levels of training in both horse and rider, such as would be found in a well-established elite equestrian culture. 


Being mostly constructed of organic wood and leather, saddles do not generally survive apart from a few examples on the continent. However, there are tantalising clues for saddles left in Anglo-Saxon burials such as girth buckles and brackets found around the ribs and back of interred horses. 

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More intact saddles from Ireland and the Continent are most often of the high-bowed saddle type – with large wooden bows at the front and back of the saddle. These were often highly decorated with more metal mounts attached to the wood.

A 10th-century stirrup found in the River Thames

However, the high bows front and back served a functional purpose; to hold the rider securely in the saddle in order to maintain contact (and therefore control) with the horse. Stirrups were not commonly used in Europe until the 8th and 9th centuries and unlikely to be widespread in England until the 11th century.

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Riding without stirrups, the high-bowed saddle would have allowed equestrian warriors to engage in mounted warfare. By providing a firm seat where the impact of thrusting with a spear from horseback would be very likely to unseat a rider with a more open saddle. 

The size of Anglo-Saxon horses

Horses in the Early Medieval period (and indeed throughout much of history until the modern period) were relatively small, no larger than what would today be considered a pony. It is worth remembering that although it is tempting to imagine medieval warriors on huge and awe-inspiring horses.

Attempting to mount a horse larger than 15 hands in armour is quite difficult, and would be especially so in the heat of impending battle. Horse remains found in domestic contexts from Early Anglo-Saxon settlements have been analysed and indicate an average withers height of around 13 hands, with the largest being just under 14 hands.

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Those found in Anglo-Saxon high status burials were mostly large and robust for the time, coming in at between 13.2 and 14 hands, similar in size to Roman war horses.

Stallions or geldings seem to have been preferred over mares as companions for burial both in Anglo-Saxon England and on the Continent. This suggests that horses chosen for burial were those large and impressive specimens that may have been intended to strengthen the impression of power and status to those witnessing the burial. It is also possible that large, male horses were preferred in warfare by these elite warriors as stronger and more aggressive steeds.

Horses in war

Horse burials in the Early Medieval period are largely confined to elite male burials also containing weapons, which suggests a strong connection between horses and the military elite. Looking at only the archaeological burial evidence, it is hard to say for certain the extent to which these horses were used in battle.

There is the possibility that horses were often ridden to war but were dismounted before fighting, as in the poem “The Battle of Maldon”. 

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There is, however, some pictorial and historical evidence for the use of the horse during battle. The horse and rider pressblech plates on the Sutton Hoo helmet depict an equestrian warrior engaging in mounted combat, thrusting with a spear, while charging into an infantry warrior who thrusts his sword into the horse’s unprotected chest. 

Reconstructed design 2 from the Sutton Hoo helmet, incorporating portions known from fragments as well as conjectural portions.

The horse and rider scene on the pressblech plates which adorn the Sutton Hoo helmet. Image: Germanic Mythology. An interesting link to this image can be made with the tactics employed by Germanic infantry against Roman heavy cavalry or cataphracts during the Battle of Strasbourg. During the battle, Germanic warriors on foot were interspersed between the light Germanic cavalry.

The infantry were hidden by the standing grain on the battlefield. As the Roman cataphracts charged the Germanic cavalry, the hidden warriors thrust their swords into the horses unprotected bellies, dismounting the Roman cataphracts.

Once on the ground, the Roman horsemen were encumbered by their heavy armour and were quickly dispatched by the lightly armed Germanic warriors. 

Anglo Saxon warriors

Strikingly, these horse and rider pressblech plates have been found in almost identical, but slightly altered, designs in Germany and Scandinavia too, emphasising the strong parallels in Germanic equestrian elites across Northern Europe during the period.

The account of the Battle of Two Rivers attests to the Anglo-Saxon use of cavalry in battle. Fought between the Northumbrians and the Picts in 671, the battle resulted in defeat for the Picts. With the account describing the Pictish dead filling the rivers, allowing the Northumbrian cavalry to pursue the fleeing Picts without getting their feet wet.


Although poetic, this account displays the most likely use of the light cavalry in Anglo-Saxon warfare; for raiding, reconnaissance and pursuing a routing enemy. The Pictish Aberlemno stone also displays light cavalry in use during battle, and appears to show both cavalry to cavalry skirmishes and the use of the shield-wall against a charging horseman. 

A small bronze figurine known as the Bradwell mounted warrior gives a tantalising, relatively naturalistic, glimpse of the equipment an Anglo-Saxon horseman might have carried.

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As with most horse-warriors during the period, the image is of a very lightly-equipped cavalry, with little to no armour on man or horse, and armed only with a sword and shield (a spear also seems likely given the Sutton Hoo iconography).

It is important to remember that, during the period, cavalry had not yet developed the decisive power seen in high medieval warfare. A good example of this is the failure of the Norman cavalry to break the well-trained Anglo-Saxon shield wall despite multiple charges.

They were only able to gain the upper hand after the Anglo-Saxons broke formation in order to pursue the rout (feigned or otherwise) of the Norman soldiers.

The horse appears to be consistently prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon mind, from burial companions to the symbolic world, appearing within other artwork such as around the Sutton Hoo shield boss and as a filigree horse mount in the Staffordshire hoard.


It may be significant that horses are one of the few identifiable animals occurring in Anglo-Saxon art.
Along with boars, birds and fish, rather than the more abstract zoomorphic beasts, and their depictions on weapons may have been hoped to bring the power and nobility of the horse to the wielder.

Even the legendary Hengest and Horsa, who supposedly led the Anglo-Saxon invasion are a clear Germanic representation of Indo-European divine horse twins.

It is clear that, contrary to popular belief, the horse played a very important role in the world and minds of the Anglo-Saxons and they were inseparable companions in life, war and death.

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