Medieval Supercars: Elite Horses Imported to London from Across Europe, Study Reveals

Researchers have uncovered evidence of extensive horse trading by the elites of late medieval and Tudor England. The findings, published in the latest edition of Science Advances, shed light on the international scale of this trade and the origins of the elite horses that were highly sought after during the 14th to 16th centuries.

The study focused on a near-unique animal cemetery discovered in London nearly 30 years ago, located under modern-day Elverton Street in the City of Westminster. Using advanced archaeological science techniques, including the analysis of chemical compositions, researchers were able to identify the likely origins of several physically elite horses and the routes they took to reach British shores during their formative years.

These horses, which were akin to modern supercars, were sourced from various locations across Europe specifically for their height and strength. They were imported for use in jousting tournaments and as status symbols of the time. Among the horses studied were three of the tallest animals known from late medieval England, standing up to 1.6 meters or 15.3 hands high, which would have been very impressive for their day, despite being quite small by modern standards.

Dr. Alex Pryor, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and lead researcher, stated, “The chemical signatures we measured in the horse’s teeth are highly distinctive and very different to anything we would expect to see in a horse that grew up in the UK. These results provide direct and unprecedented evidence for a variety of horse movement and trading practices in the Middle Ages. Representatives for the King and other medieval London elites were scouring horse trading markets across Europe seeking out the best quality horses they could find and bringing them to London. It’s quite possible that the horses were ridden in the jousting contests we know were held in Westminster, close to where the horses were buried.”

The researchers took 22 molar teeth from 15 individual animals and drilled out portions of the enamel for isotope analysis. By measuring isotope ratios of the elements strontium, oxygen, and carbon present within the teeth and comparing the results with known ranges in different geographies, the team was able to identify the potential origin of each horse and accurately rule out others, including prime European horse-breeding centers such as Spain and southern Italy.

Dr. Pryor revealed that at least half of the horses had diverse international origins, possibly Scandinavia, the Alps, and other northern and eastern European locations. The results were consistent with the breeding patterns of royal stud farms, where horses would reside until their second or third year before being broken and trained or sent elsewhere to be sold.

Physical analysis of the teeth revealed wear suggestive of heavy use of a curb bit, often employed with elite animals, especially those groomed for war and tournaments after the 14th century. Bit wear on two of the mares also suggested they were used under saddle or in harness and for breeding. Furthermore, analysis of the skeletons revealed many of them to be well above average size, with several instances of fused lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae indicative of a life of riding and hard work.

Professor Oliver Creighton, a medieval specialist at the University of Exeter and part of the research team, added, “The finest medieval horses were like modern supercars – inordinately expensive and finely tuned vehicles that proclaimed their owner’s status. And at Elverton Street, our research team seem to have found evidence for horses used in jousting – the sport of kings, in which riders showcased their fighting skills and horsemanship on elite mounts.”

The new findings provide a tangible archaeological signature of this trade, emphasizing its international scale. It is evident that the medieval London elite were explicitly targeting the highest quality horses they could find at a European scale, showcasing the importance of these animals in their society and the lengths to which they would go to acquire them.

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