Last week we looked at the different types of horses that were used in the fourteenth century; this week we’re going to look at what they cost, both to buy and to keep. Before I started looking into it, I assumed that more or less everyone had a horse, but that seems not to have been the case. Owning a horse then, as now, was an expensive business and you only had a horse if you needed one. If you lived in a town and rarely left it, you probably didn’t own a horse. Even if you had land to plough, you might not have a horse, as oxen were used for agricultural work for most of the century.
As a way of understanding the cost of buying and keeping a horse, I’m going to relate it to the daily wage of a skilled labourer, which was about 4d (four pennies). When we do some sums later, we must remember that a labourer would not work every day. Sunday was a rest day and there were frequent religious festivals on which no one worked.
We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. A sumpter was a pack horse and cost anywhere between 5 and 10 shillings to buy. There were 12 pennies in a shilling, so a basic pack horse would cost our labourer 15 days’ wages. A top of the range one would cost 30 days. So, if our skilled labourer’s trade meant that he needed to transport heavy tools or goods, he could probably afford to buy a horse to carry them for him. Whether or not he could afford to keep it once he had it is another matter and we’ll come on to that later.
An ordinary riding horse (a hackney or a rouncey) cost from £3 to £10. There were 20 shillings in a pound, so a £3 horse would cost 180 days’ wages, which would take more than six months to earn. Our skilled labourer was unlikely to be able afford a horse of this kind and would have had to make do with riding his sumpter. He would equally have been unable to afford a palfrey for his wife to ride, as they cost £4 or £5.
Coursers were used for hunting and they cost about £10. Only the wealthy and people who worked for them hunted on horseback, so this was well beyond the reach of the skilled labourer. For the sake of comparison, though, it would cost him 600 days’ wages.
Destriers, the highly-trained warhorses, cost around £40, but there are records of some being bought for £80 and more. In 1331 Edward III paid £120 for one. In 1377 his grandson, Richard II, rode a charger worth £200 to his coronation. We’re beyond the realm of our skilled labourer, here, but a horse of £40 would have cost him 2,400 days’ work. That’s six and a half years if he worked every day including holidays. Interestingly, £40 was a year’s income for many knights, so a horse was a big investment even for them. They needed more than one, though. When they went on campaign, it was normal to take four warhorses and a knight would also need an ordinary riding horse and pack horses. Buying a horse was just the start, though.
Horses were expensive to keep as well as to buy. They ate the unattractively-named horse bread, which was made just from beans and peas. It cost ½d a loaf. Hay for one day cost another 2d. Oats cost up to 5½d a bushel. At the beginning of the fourteenth century feeding and stabling a good horse would cost its owner between 6¼d and 7½d per day. Even allowing that our skilled labourer wouldn’t have had a good horse, feeding it would take up a fair amount of his income. His costs wouldn’t end there, though.
In order to ride a horse, you need a saddle. That would be about 5 shillings. A halter would be from 6d to 12d and spurs cost about 2 shillings.
On top of that, horses require a lot of care. A set of shoes cost from 6d to 8d. Their feet have to be looked after by removing the shoes and cutting the hooves. Then the shoes have to be put on again. All of this cost 2d. I don’t know how often it was done in the fourteenth century, but it’s done about once every six weeks these days.
Horses also got sick and needed specialist care and medicine. Given their cost, owners were going to go to a lot of effort and expense to keep them alive.
There was an alternative to owning a horse if you didn’t need one very often. They could be hired. If you wanted to hire a horse to go from London to Canterbury, if you were a pilgrim, for example, it would cost 2 shillings. If you wanted to go from London to Dover, probably with the intention of going on to Calais, it would cost 2 shillings and 6d. It’s 55 miles from Southwark, where they would have started from, to Canterbury and 70 to Dover. It’s still a week’s wages, more or less, for our skilled labourer, but it’s a lot cheaper than owning a horse.
The Medieval Horse and its Equipment by John Clark
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford
A Social History of England 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer