Horses in Cumbrian Medieval romances

In the late 15th Century there were several Arthurian literary romantic poems written in the North of England. They include "The Avowing of Arthur", "The Adventures of Arthur", and "The Carle of Carlisle". Some of these poems may have been composed as early as the last quarter of the 14th century. They mention Carlisle, Inglewood Forest and "Tarn Wathelin" also known as Tarn Wadling, a magical lake which was near Lazonby.

These poems prove nothing about King Arthur, other than his lasting fame, but they do shed some interesting light on how horses were regarded in the late 15th century. Sadly, Fell-type animals are not mentioned.

In "The Adventures of Arthur" Sir Gawain's roan horse Grisell dies in a combat and his opponent Galeron offers him another mount. This is a Friesian which has been mentioned before, ridden by a squire and spooking at the entertainment provided:

"Go fecche me my freson, fairest on fote" (Go fetch me my Friesian horse, fairest on foot)

sound fileHear this spoken: MP3: 47kb - WAV : 205kb

However, Gawain refuses. A Friesian horse was apparently no substitute for Grisell! Gawain mourns him "for doel of the dombe best that thus shuld be dede" (for sadness over the dumb beast that has died so):

Als he stode by his stede,
(As he stood by his steed)
That was so goode at nede,
(That was so good at need)
Ner Gawayn wax wede,
(Gawain nearly went mad)
So wepputte he sare.
(He wept so sore).

sound file Hear this spoken: MP3 : 97kb - WAV: 424kb

On the other hand, his opponent is less sentimental. He observes that he wouldn't bother too much over a horse normally since it was easy to find another!

This doesn't prove that Friesian horses were being used in Cumberland by Arthur, but they were certainly known over here in the 1470s. The type then was unlike the modern Friesian; they were thickset farm horses, which were later much used by Dutch drainage experts in the English Fen country, particularly East Anglia and Norfolk. They were black, chestnut or roan, and the horses used in the Fens are believed to be a foundation of the Old English Black horse, later known as the Shire. It's curious that there is no description of what Grisell looked like or what type he was, other than his name, which was the term for "roan" (formerly this colour was called "liard". Perhaps the bard assumed that the nature of the horse's job - jousting and combat - made it obvious that Grisell was a "destrier", the fighting man's Great Horse, kept purely for action in battle. He was not, however, the massive horse of nineteenth century agriculture; he was an active, square-trotting cob.