The Fell Pony Museum: Viking and Norman era
The Fell Pony Museum
Vikings :: Normans


After the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 AD the Norsemen or Vikings began to settle in England. The Lake District is rather proud of its Viking heritage, perhaps be23 May, 2021ite>"Despite the fact that they fought mostly on foot, the Vikings also occasionally fielded cavalry, as at the bat23 May, 2021hey used horses simply as a means of increasing their mobility during their raiding expeditions. They either rounded up horses for this purpose in the vicinity of their encampment, or took those of the defeated enemy after a battle, as is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the years 999 and 1010..." (Chartrand et al 2006, The Vikings)

Many place names in the Lakes owe their names to Norse language: Roundthwaite, Kirkby Thore, Stonethwaite, Wasdale. Many of these are also horse related:

Hest Bank (hengst = horse, usually a stallion),
Hesket (hesta-skeith: skaithe= a racecourse, a place for "horse-pacing" or "horse-ambling"), Capple Rigg and possibly Chapel Waste (capul = a riding horse and later also a packhorse, rigg = ridge, waste = uncultivated land), Rosthwaite (hros = horse, thwaite = clearing), Studfold (stod = breeding mares [not stallions - a stallion was a "hengst" or if ridden, a "stede"], fold = enclosure) ( ref )

The main Norse influx is said to have come to Cumbria from Ireland and the Isle of Man. Maybe they were invited by the remnants of the Brigantes who still had ties with their mainland relatives (see Dent ). Recent DNA research indicates however that some came directly from southern Scandinavia, and their descendants still live around the Penrith area. These Scandinavians were farmers first and foremost. They did use horses more than the Anglo Saxons did, who settled further south.

Ploughing today - pirating tomorrow

The Norsemen went "a viking" - in plain language, raiding and stealing - in summer between sowing and harvest. Apparently they used horses to plough because they were faster than oxen and got the spring planting out of the way so the pirating season could begin. Their settlement of Northern England made these new practices commonplace. (Richardson)

Horse ploughing was resisted in some areas. Hywel Da made the new practice illegal in Wales at the end of the 10th century. There are several possible reasons for this: it may have been intended to prevent the light, fast horses being injured trying to do heavy work. It may have been impractical because the solid full neck-collar for horses, the most efficient method of harnessing to agricultural implements, had not yet been introduced (Enc. Britannica) - draught still used an ox-style yoke across the top of the neck, fixed in place by a band under the throat, which tended to throttle a horse if it worked strongly. Also, the plough needs to dig into the earth, and working fast with light animals may have caused it to lift over the ground rather than digging in, cutting and turning it, so failing to prepare the soil thoroughly for the intended crop.

Horses are 50% faster than oxen and can also work more hours during the day because oxen need to lie down to "chew the cud" after eating. But light, pony sized animals were certainly not stronger than oxen in total pulling force. They were more demanding to care for, and not only were they more expensive to buy but they required more expensive food, particularly in winter; and unlike cattle, there was an increasing dislike of eating them when their working days were over. (Later in history, these points became less important than the advantages of speed and the amount of land required to support a team of horses vs that for oxen: Bailey and Culley wrote in 1794 of ox teams in Northumberland: "A team of oxen requires 10 acres more land to maintain than a team of 2 horses which will do the same work." They mention mixed teams of horses and oxen. Oxen were still used for ploughing as late as 1851, for instance in Shetland, (Dent), and F W Garnett mentions oxen broken to plough in South Cumbria in the late 19th C, although by that time an ox team appears to have been something out of the ordinary.)

It was illegal in the 11th C to plough with a mare or a cow for fear of the strain bringing on abortion of foal or calf - farmers could only plough with the neutered oxen (Clutton-Brock). Several other laws were also enacted at that period to prevent injury to horses, and appropriate fines were laid down for breaking those laws.

The Norsemen are credited with introducing the stirrup for security when riding into battle, and stirrups were certainly in use by Saxons in Britain in the 11th century (Williams). Stirrups had, however, been in use in Europe for at least five hundred years prior to this and it would be surprising if they had not been seen in at all in Britain during that time.

The Norse policy of gelding surplus colts is said to have been slow to catch on because it was beneath a warrior's dignity to ride a gelding or a mare. The horses for riding or pack work were kept handy either stabled or pastured round the edge of the villages, while the breeding stock lived out on the fell because they were able to fend for themselves. However, they do not appear to have been carefully bred, except by natural selection. Only the hardy and the quick survived. (Richardson)

Later, Norman priories and abbeys kept stock in this manner too. As a group the hill-living ponies could keep watch for danger, could kick out to injure or kill wolves and were fast enough to escape a hunting wolfpack. Farm deeds - some are known in the Slaidburn area of Lancashire - occasionally mention that horses were kept rather than sheep or cattle because they were able to defend themselves or escape their predators. Slaidburn also has a road leading to the village with the Viking name "the Skaithe" which may signify a race-track, or maybe an area for running horses out to display them for sale.

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Last updated 23 May, 2021 .
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