The Fell Pony Museum: 14th Century
The Fell Pony Museum
Chaucer :: Monks :: Wool trade :: Rakkers

Monks, rakkers and grey ponies

The Cistercian Order, or White Friars, owned large amounts of land in the Lakes from the 12th century onward. As non-warlike communities, the principal clerics' main need was for a comfortable riding horse. It is said that the monasteries kept "amblers", or the easy-gaited horses which were known in the North as " rakkers ", and the lay brothers would have required animals that could carry goods, or draw light carts or farming and gardening equipment. (ref).

It is often asserted that the grey colour in the Fell breed traces back as least as far as this time, and various writers have suggested that the Cistercian communities had a preference for horses of this colour, but it is also true that there seem to have been a large proportion of horses that were white or grey in medieval times and outside monastic possession.

mural of monks, ponies and cart

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The mural here is based on the Premonstratensian house at Shap. Thomas son of Gospatrick gave them leave to quarry stone, to begin building Shap Abbey, a short time before his death in 1201.

Shap Abbey of the Premonstratensian Order and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, was founded by Thomas de Workington at Preston Patrick, c. 1191. See Records of Kendale, ii, 298. But in order to find a more secluded habitation the monks removed their quarters to Shap between 1197 and 1200, where the said Thomas de Workington granted to them all that his land which was Karl, by these bounds:

From the ford of Karlwath [over the river Lowther a little south of the abbey] ascending by the river on the south as far as Langeshabeck, and so ascending by Langeshabeck to the road which comes from Kendal [where the beck crosses the road from Keld to Swindale] and so following that road northward till it comes to Stanirase nigh Rafland [a tumulus still known as Staneraise in Ralphland], and so by that road unto Rasate, and so going down on the other side of the hill to the great stone where they were wont to stand to watch the deer as they passed [called the Buckstone by the river side], and so going down to the river Lowther and further as far as the division of Rosgill towards the east [up the stream and across it to the boundary of Rosgill] and so all along southward by the top of the hill of Creskeld and so to Alinbalike [a field called Almbank on the left of the lane that leads off the main road to the abbey]. He grants to them also the vale with brush-wood in the eastern part over against their own, stretching along by the top of the hill to the house which formerly was William King's, and so to the land which belonged to Matthew de Hepp [Hall Garth], and so going down westward to the said ford of Karlwath.

Thomas de Workington also granted to the abbey pasture in common with his tenants at Rasate, and pasture at Thamboord and at Swindale on both sides [to the top of Binbarh on one side and on the other side beyond Thengeheved] for 60 cows, 20 mares to run in the woods and 500 sheep with their young till the age of three years, and for 5 yoke of oxen; and wood also for the abbey for timber, fire, hedging and other necessaries, without the control of his foresters. (British History)

The Premonstratensian clergy were "canons regular" who vowed to live austerely and in poverty. Like the Cistercians, they wore white robes so they were sometimes called the "White Canons". They preferred to base themselves in remote areas, but unlike monks they did not live totally apart and often undertook work in their local parishes. Those at Shap Abbey were dedicated to teaching and scholarship.

Although this order is less well known than the Cistercians and Franciscans, there was a wide network of Premonstratensian foundations across Britain. In 1400 the Itinerary of Titchfield Abbey (in Hampshire, on the South coast of Britain) shows two dozen Premonstratensian abbeys, from Norwich in the east to Torre in Devon in the west, and from Titchfield itself in the south to Alnwick in the north (Hindle).

Shap Abbey continued to house around a dozen canons and their abbot until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was surrendered to the Crown on 14th January 1540. (ref)

Why three ponies and not just one?

The cart and harnessing methods illustrated here are consistent with the Lutrell Psalter where ponies are shown harnessed in "randem" using rope traces and led by a man at the head of the leading pony. A large amount of power would be needed to pull a cart loaded with blocks of stone. The collars are fitted with carved wooden hames similar to those found on the Continent.

The cart had no springs. It would only be useful in areas where the monks maintained level and firm roads. For the same reason, four-wheeled carts and waggons harnessed with pairs or teams of four were not used.

Other tracks degenerated rapidly under pack traffic into hollow ways with deep mud in winter.

"The routes used by the packhorse trains characteristically ascended steep valley sides in sharp zigzags, and spread out on the felltops, making diversions around boggy ground. Deep hollow-ways scar the slopes of Blease Fell and Uldale Head..." (Lambert)



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Last updated 23 May, 2021 .
Copyright © since 2000 The Fell Pony and Countryside Museums.

23 May, 2021