No. 87 of 100 Reasons Why Oxford = Shakespeare: Horses and Horsemanship!


“But if at any time with fiery energy he should call up a mimicry of war, he controls his foaming steed with a light rein; and, armed with a long spear, rides to the encounter. Fearlessly he settles himself in the saddle, gracefully bending his body this way and that. Now he circles round; now with spurred heel he rouses his charger. The gallant animal with fiery energy collects himself together, and flying quicker than the wind, beats the ground with his hoofs, and again is pulled up short as the reins control him. Bravo, valiant youth!”
— Translation of Latin verse by Giles Fletcher, describing Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford on horseback in a Westminster tournament at age twenty-one in 1571

I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship!
— Vernon, describing Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One (4.1)

Barbary Horse

Barbary Horse

When he began his search that led to “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920, J. Thomas Looney listed eighteen characteristics (based on the poems, plays and sonnets) that the great author – whoever he was – must have possessed. Among these features he named, for example, “an enthusiast for Italy; a follower of sport (including falconry); a lover of music” and so on; but much later, after discovering Oxford, he realized it was “a grave omission” to have neglected horses and horsemanship.

“We find there is more in Shakespeare about horses than upon almost any subject outside human nature,” he wrote. “Indeed we feel tempted to say that Shakespeare brings them within the sphere of human nature.”

BENEDICK: “Sir, your wit ambles well; it goes easily.” (Much Ado About Nothing, 5.1)

ROSALIND: “Time travels in divers paces, with divers persons: I’ll tell you who Time ambles withal, who Time trots withal, who Time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.” (As You Like It, 3.2)

“There is, of course,” Looney continued, “his intimate knowledge of different kinds of horses, their physical peculiarities, all the details which go to form a good or a bad specimen of a given variety, almost a veterinary’s knowledge of their diseases and their treatment. But over and above all this there is a peculiar handling of the theme which raises a horse almost to the level of a being with a moral nature…


“Not only did Oxford learn to ride, but, in those days when horsemanship was much more in vogue than it will probably ever be again, and when great skill was attained in horse-management, he was among those who excelled, particularly in tilts and tourneys, receiving special marks of royal appreciation of his skill. Horsemanship was, therefore, a very pronounced interest of his.”

His father John de Vere, the sixteenth Earl of Oxford, had been the owner of valuable horses in the stable of Castle Hedingham; in his first will, of 1552, he listed “ten geldings & nags with saddles, bridles and all things pertaining to them.” (In Henry IV, Part One: “I pray thee lend me thy lantern, to see my gelding in the stable.”) In his final will, of 1562, he bequeathed “one of my great horses” to each of several friends such as Nicholas Bacon and William Cecil. The Great Horse was the old English war-horse used for tournaments and service; it was undoubtedly the model in Julius Caesar for Antony’s horse:

It is a creature that I teach to fight,
To wind, to stop, to run directly on,
His corporal motion govern’d by my spirit. (4.1)

In September that year, twelve-year-old Edward “came riding out of Essex” from his father’s funeral “with seven score horse all in black; through London and Chepe and Ludgate, and so to Temple Bar.” (Machyn’s Diary, 1848)

Barbary Horse

Barbary Horse

There were about a dozen distinct breeds of horses in England during Oxford’s lifetime, the most popular riding horses being the Turkey, the Barb, the Neapolitan and the Spanish Jennet. Of all of them, the Barbary horse or Barb “was undoubtedly the great author’s favorite,” writes A. Forbes Sieverking in Shakespeare’s England, adding, “With such affection and intimacy does he dwell upon its merits that it is probable that the poet at one time possessed a roan Barb [usually Chestnut colored, sprinkled with white or gray].”

It may well be probable that the poet had owned a roan Barb, especially if the poet was the Earl of Oxford! After all, the Barbary horse was a special breed from northern Africa, an expensive riding horse known for its fiery temperament and stamina – highly prized by the Italians, whose noble families had established large racing stables – a horse for kings!

Red Roan Barb

Red Roan Barb

HOTSPUR: Hath Butler brought those horses from the sheriff?
SERVANT: One horse, my lord, he brought even now.
HOTSPUR: What horse? A roan, a crop-ear, is it not?
SERVANT: It is, my lord.
HOTSPUR: That roan shall be my throne.
(1 Henry IV, 2.3)

Henry VIII had purchased a number of Barbary horses from Frederico Gonzago of Mantua and elsewhere; private owners in England used the Barbs to develop the Thoroughbred.

Seal of King Richard II

Seal of King Richard II

In the fourteenth century Richard II had owned a roan Barb, as “Shakespeare” wrote in the play bearing that king’s name. In Act Five Scene 5 he is in prison after his crown has been taken by Bolingbroke, who is now Henry IV; and the Groom tells him how the new king actually rode Richard’s own horse, which he calls roan Barbary, in the procession for his coronation:

O, how it yearned my heart when I beheld
In London streets, that coronation day,
When Bolingbroke rode on Roan Barbary,
That horse that thou so often hast bestrid,
That horse that I so carefully have dressed!

First Bolingbroke took his crown … but now his horse! Richard cannot conceal his suffering.

Rode he on Barbary? Tell me, gentle friend,
How went he under him?

So proudly as if he disdained the ground.

This is too, too much – his own horse has betrayed him:

So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand –
This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
Would he not stumble? Would he not fall down,
Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?

But then, of course, the horse was merely being true to his own nature:

RICHARD (continued):
Forgiveness, horse! Why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be awed by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse,
And yet I bear a burden like an ass,
Spurred, galled and tired by jouncing Bolingbroke.

In Hamlet the King wagers six Barbary horses against six French rapiers and poniards on the prince’s ability to win the fencing match with Laertes. Iago describes Othello as a Barbary horse, rakishly alluding to the Barbary’s Moorish origins and, also, to the practice of breeding a Barbary to an English mare.

An Elizabethan  Hawking Party

An Elizabethan
Hawking Party

A favorite Shakespearean passage about horses is to be found in Venus and Adonis “in which,” Looney wrote, “a mere animal instinct is raised in horses to the dignity of a complex and exalted human passion” –

A breeding jennet, lusty, young, and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts, and neighs aloud.
The strong-necked steed, being tied unto a tree,
Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder.
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder.
The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
Controlling what he was controlled with.

His ears up-prick’d; his braided hanging mane
Upon his compass’d crest now stand on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapours doth he send:
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

Elizabeth I of England on horseback

Elizabeth I of England
on horseback

Sometime he trots, as if he told the steps,
With gentle majesty and modest pride;
Anon he rears upright, curvets and leaps,
As who should say ‘Lo, thus my strength is tried,
And this I do to captivate the eye
Of the fair breeder that is standing by.’

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering ‘Holla,’ or his ‘Stand, I say’?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur?
For rich caparisons or trapping gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Look, when a painter would surpass the life,
In limning out a well-proportion’d steed,
His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed;
So did this horse excel a common one
In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

Sometime he scuds far off and there he stares;
Anon he starts at stirring of a feather;
To bid the wind a base he now prepares,
And whether he run or fly they know not whether;
For through his mane and tail the high wind sings,
Fanning the hairs, who wave like feather’d wings.

He looks upon his love and neighs unto her;
She answers him as if she knew his mind:
Being proud, as females are, to see him woo her,
She puts on outward strangeness, seems unkind,
Spurns at his love and scorns the heat he feels,
Beating his kind embracements with her heels.

Then, like a melancholy malcontent,
He veils his tail that, like a falling plume,
Cool shadow to his melting buttock lent:
He stamps and bites the poor flies in his fume.
His love, perceiving how he is enraged,
Grew kinder, and his fury was assuaged.
(Lines 260 – 318)

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