Horses and saddles of the 16th-17th centuries

Magnificent saddle around 1455 of King Ladislav Postum (“Posthumous”) (1440 – 1457) – King of Bohemia from 1453, King of Hungary from May 15 to July 17, 1440 (1st time) (coronation on May 15, 1440) and from May 30, 1445 (2nd time) (under the name Laszlo V), and Duke of Austria from December 22, 1440, the last representative of the Albertine line in the Habsburg dynasty. Material – carved painted bone! (Vienna Armory)

“… the cavalry of the enemies was very numerous …”
First Book of Maccabees 16: 7

Military affairs at the turn of the eras. The war horses of the Middle Ages were, contrary to all ideas, not much more than ordinary peasant horses, which is proved by the horse armor made on them. That is, they were large horses, no one argues with this, but by no means giants. Of course, there are paintings by artists on which war horses are simply giants. But at the same time there are prints by Dürer, paintings by Bruegel and Titian, which depict horses with a maximum height of 1.5 m at the withers, which, in principle, is not so much. On the other hand, let us recall who exactly many painters at that time – and we are talking about the line between the Middle Ages and the New Age – posed: Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V (“the ruler of Spain, Germany and both Indies”), King Francis I and Henry VIII … It is clear that they would hardly like it if their artists depicted on horses, which in their size are unworthy of the high titles of their riders!

It is believed that knightly horses helped their owners when they met in duels, and even … fought with each other. Bestiary of Rochester 1230 (British Library, London)

The training of the horse was much more important than the size. That is, the knight could not just take and sit on the first strong horse from his herd. The horse had to be taught not to be afraid of the clang of swords, cannon shots, a spear shaft next to its right eye (an ordinary horse is afraid of it and “feeds” it at a trot and at a gallop to the left!), But the main thing is to participate in the battle at the behest of its owner! So, if the knight was surrounded by enemy infantry, then he could raise his horse on its hind legs, so that it would be more convenient for him to cut them with a sword from above, while the horse thrashed them with its front hooves. This figure even had its own name – “levada” and was trained by both a horse and a rider at the same time. Further, the horse, standing on its hind legs, had to make jumps, which made it possible for him to break the ring of enemy infantrymen. Such jumps were called “curbets” and it is clear that the horse had to be very strong in order to jump in armor weighing from 30 to 60 kg together with a saddle, and even with a rider, also dressed in armor. And there was also such a figure as the “Capriola”, when the horse, having made a high jump, beat with all four legs, which caused the infantrymen to scatter in all directions. Moreover, having landed, the horse had to make a full turn on its hind legs – “pirouette”, and again rush after the running opponents. Cypriola was also used against the horsemen.

Saddle of the late 15th century owned by Emperor Maximilian I (Vienna Armory)

It is clear that not all knightly horses possessed such a high level of “combat training”. By the way, the knights rode exclusively on stallions; it was considered shameful to ride mares. Most of the horses were trained to walk at a pace, but at the first “order” to gallop. And about the same thing happened in the late 15th – early 16th centuries, when the development of massive armies armed with new weapons and, above all, pistol cavalry, led to the fact that strong, tall horses were simply not enough. Their decline was simply enormous, since the infantrymen recruited from the peasants did not see any value in them and, using their arquebusses, and then more powerful muskets, they first of all fired at the horses!

Saddle of Khan Murat Giray. Among the Turkish trophies collected after the siege and liberation of Vienna in 1683 was the saddle, which was originally attributed to Kara Mustafa, the grand vizier and commander-in-chief of the Turkish army, primarily because of its particularly rich equipment. However, this is most likely a mistake, because the tughra (calligraphic name) of Girey Khan (khan 1678-1683) is depicted on the saddle. The saddle is the work of the court workshop of Sultan Mehmed IV. The seat is upholstered in cherry red velvet with floral appliqués. The saddle comes with a pair of gold-plated brass stirrups. Murat Girey was the khan of the Crimean Tatars. In 1466, the Crimean Tatars separated from the Golden Horde, and in 1478, under Sultan Mehmed II, the khans of the Crimean Tatars became vassals of the Ottoman Empire. They were used by the Ottomans as auxiliary troops in their battles with the Poles, Transylvanians and Habsburgs. During the campaign to Vienna, on September 9, 1683, Girey Khan also arrived at Kara-Mustafa with a detachment of Tatars. But the khan was unable to establish correct relations with the grand vizier and interfered with his Turkish authorities as best he could. Therefore, after the defeat at Gran, Kara Mustafa immediately dismissed him and appointed another member of the Girey family as Khan of the Tatars. (Vienna Armory)

Naturally, neither cuirassiers nor pistoliers simply needed such a dressage of horses. The same cuirassiers attacked the infantry in two or three ranks, galloping their horses. At the same time, in the last meters before the collision, they fired at him with pistols, and then, without slowing down, attacked with swords in their hands. At the same time, the second and third ranks often did not fire at all, saving their pistols until hand-to-hand combat.

Horsemen of the 16th century from the Vienna Armory. This is a general view, and in the next photos we will get to know them better …

The Reitaras needed their horses to do karakol well, but that was all. As more and more horses died during the wars, it became more and more difficult to supply the army with horses, so the riders now had to be content with mongrel horses, moreover, of a small size.

Robe of the Noble Horseman approx. 1550 At the horse we see only a horse’s forehead and a blanket, at the rider himself on his head only a helmet of a burgionot. Together, the blanket and the rider’s outfit form a rich set, made, including the saddle, in the same style. Owner of this Archduke Ferdinand II, son of Emperor Maximilian I. (Vienna Armory)

Therefore, in order to maintain the breed and have the necessary horses always at hand, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire supported the opening in Vienna of the so-called “Spanish school” of riding, and in fact – a horse farm, where they began to breed horses of the famous Lipizzan breed, obtained from crossing the Andalusian horses with horses of the “pure German breed” and Arabian horses from North Africa.

Another equestrian set of Maximilian II. Note its purely knightly saddle with metal-bound leg protectors. (Vienna Armory)

The British were also lucky with horses. Moreover, from the very beginning of their history, if we count as such the year 1066 and the conquest of England by Guillaume of Normandy. The fact is that among the horses he brought to England were two half-breed black stallions, crossing which with local mares eventually managed to get a horse of the so-called “English breed”, for which, by the way, Andalusian horses were constantly imported in England. Moreover, the first thoroughbred English horses (this means horses with a known pedigree and having Arab horses from Arabia among their ancestors) had a height of 150 cm at the withers and only later began to reach 170 cm.Another interesting breed of English horses is the English shire that existed in England for a very long time. Again, today their height at the withers reaches 200 cm, and their weight is 1300 kg. Even less massive and tall horses could well carry riders even in heavy cuirassier armor, the weight of which often exceeded 40 kg, that is, it was more than even the weight of full knightly armor.

And this is also one of his headsets. And why be surprised if many kings and emperors only once put on outfits sewn for them, considering it beneath their dignity to dress in their own “rags” … (Vienna Armory)

However, outside of England and Germany, where there were generally enough thoroughbred horses, gendarme riders, not to mention cuirassiers, reitars and light horses, had to be content with undersized horses, which is why, by the way, these riders did not wear armor. Even an extra pistol weighing 1700 – 2 kg and that, together with all other equipment, was a burden for them. It is known, for example, that many pistoliers, who had four heavy pistols and a sword as weapons, wore as protective armor only … a chain mail cape, which was called the “bishop’s cloak”, which covered the arms to the elbows and the torso somewhere to the middle of the chest. In Germany, for example, in the cavalry of many small Protestant princes, as well as in England, among horsemen on the border with Scotland, such capes were very popular especially in the middle of the 16th century.

Horses and saddles of the 16th-17th centuries

German pistolier 1580. Drawing by Liliana and Fred Funkenov. Dressed in a chain mail cape “the bishop’s cloak”.

By the way, it was in the middle of the 16th century that there was a massive abandonment of horse armor. Soon, only the upper part of the shaffron was preserved from it, which covered the upper part of the horse’s head. But this piece of horse armor also disappeared after 1580. Instead, metal-bound bridle straps began to be used, very similar to a dog’s muzzle. By the end of the century, they were especially popular with the German cavalry. In Italy, belts were used that crossed the horse’s rump and protected from chopping blows. But, of course, it is impossible to call them full-fledged “armor”, although they were beautiful. Rather, they tried to make them beautiful, since then it was customary to go to war as to a holiday.

German mercenaries in the service of the English king Henry VIII: 1 – “rider of the border” – a lightly armed spearman who served on the border with Scotland. Armor: plate tunic – “jacque”, chain mail, helmet – “sweat”, plate gloves for one or two hands. Armament: sword and spear; 2,3 – Landsknecht mercenaries. The mercenary on the right in the “bishop’s cloak” chain mail. Armament: pike and sword katsbalger, aka landsknetta – short sword of landsknechts for hand-to-hand combat. Fig. Angus McBride

However, for kings, princes and other nobles, plate armor for horses continued to be made until the beginning of the 17th century. Especially famous for his works was the French master Etienne Delon, well, the one who made sketches for the armor of the Swedish king Eric XIV. It was already almost ceremonial armor, which had no combat value. It was just that it was customary, as now, say, some Arab sheikhs customize to ride a Rolls-Royce “Silver Shadow”, trimmed from the inside with mammoth fur.

Horse armor by master Jörg Seusenhofer, second half of the 16th century. Innsbruck. (Vienna Armory)

Another thing is that the changes in the armament also caused changes in the saddle design. Let’s remember what a typical knight’s saddle looked like. It was high, so that the knight almost stood in stirrups, with a high front bow, which in itself served as his armor, and with an equally high back, often propped up with rods resting against the bard – armor for the croup. It was called a “chair saddle” and it was not at all easy to fall out of it, as well as to fall out of the chair. In another way it was called the “German saddle” and it was … too heavy.

And this is how the stirrups put to such armor looked in 1550. (Vienna Armory)

With the change (lightening) of the spear, the rear bow became shorter and more sloping, and the front bow decreased in size. The little bunch itself has become shorter, and the saddle, accordingly, is lighter. It is interesting that the protective function of the fence, which previously descended from the front bow down, now began to play in new conditions … two holsters, attached in front and well protected the rider’s thighs. Remember how in Dumas’ novel “The Viscount de Bragelon”, the Comte de Guiche asks Malicorne his opinion about pistol holsters on the saddle and he replies that in his opinion they are heavy. And their details are really the same precisely because they played the role of a kind of “shell”. Sewing a 75 cm leather case for a pistol would have been easier than ever, but this is exactly what the saddlers did not do.

However, there is nothing to be surprised at. The novel takes place after the restoration of the English king Charles II. And then such equipment was in use. And once it appeared, it then persisted for a very long time, until the beginning of the 19th century, including the holsters at the saddle, left and right. Well, heavy cuirassier armor in three-quarters was actively used in the Thirty Years War….

“Armor in three quarters” by the Dresden master Jacob Jöring, 1640. On the left, the German cavalry sword, 1620 (Dresden Armory)

The author and the site administration would like to express their heartfelt gratitude to the curators of the Vienna Armory Ilse Jung and Florian Kugler for the opportunity to use her photographs.

To be continued…

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