Medieval Warhorse : The Destrier

Destrier is an archaic word for warhorse. It was not a specific breed but was a horse chosen for battle and individual combat at jousting tournaments. As well as having the strength to carry an armoured knight (good armour weighed about 70 lbs)  the Destrier was also trained to inflict injury on the enemy. It was usually a stallion that had to undergo extensive training before being ready for battle. It had to

  • Respond to a knights commands using leg pressure
  • Trample the bodies of fallen enemies
  • Bite and kick on command
  • It needed explosive energy and agility as well as mass.

We can see Destriers being trained from the marginalia of manscript 264 in The Bodleian Library.

Training Horses

Training Horses

Because of the training the Destrier was a very expensive horse. It cost roughly twice that of a Palfrey which was a horse used for travelling because of its comfortable ambling gait. Knights would usually have a Palfrey for day to day journeying with the Destrier reserved for battle or tournaments.

Although it is often assumed that the great draught horses such as the Clydesdale are the descendants of the Destrier it seems unlikely because if one looks at medieval representations of Destriers they were far more like the modern Percheron.



These magnificent horses typify the conformation of a Destrier. The

St. George by Albrecht Durer

St. George by Albrecht Durer

Percheron stand about 15 to 18 hands (probably a bit taller than the original Destrier), they weigh around 2000 pounds, are heavily muscled and have a low centre of gravity.

It would have been a definite advantage to have a low centre of gravity in a jousting tournament along with explosive speed and power. From paintings of the medieval period we can determine that this is the type of conformation favoured by knights.

[The word destrier comes an from Old French word destre right hand, from Latin dextra; from the fact that a squire led a knight’s horse with his right hand]

The World is a Haystack

“The world is a haystack, and each man plucks from it what he can.”

This is a Flemish proverb that is famously illustrated in Hieronymous Bosch’s Haywain. In the central panel of this triptych the Haywain is being pulled by demonic characters – half beast half man – towards hell.

The Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)

People from all walks of life are scrabbling to grab hay from the haywain, oblivious to how it is moving them inexorably towards damnation. All manner of human weakness is portrayed by Bosch: fighting, killing, gluttony and lust. People are being crushed under the wheels of the haywain; lovers and musicians on the top of the hay are so self absorbed that they cannot see what’s happening. The rich and powerful from church and state follow on their horses. An angel gazes towards Heaven where Christ looks down with what might well be interpreted as a gesture of despair at the foolishness of mankind.
What is striking in this picture is the depiction of the clergy. On the bottom right hand of the central panel a group of nuns are busily filling a large sack with hay, watched over by a fat abbess who is comfortably seated and drinking while overseeing the work. One of the rich followers behind the haywain is clearly a bishop on a white horse.

Detail from The Haywain – Nuns filling a sack with hay, watched over by the abbess

In another of Bosches works ‘Ship of Fools’ the priest and nun are very prominent. The ship (life) drifts aimlessly while the occupants are preoccupied with their own desires and diversions.

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymous Bosch (1450 – 1516)

This view of the clergy is not uncommon in medieval times.

William Langland, in his great allegorical poem, PiersPlowman, is scathing in his portrayal of of the contemporary church(14th century). He depicts friars as fraudsters and liars given to greed, drunkenness and promiscuity with courtesans and concubines.

Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales is equally cynical with his portrayal of the “fat and personable priest” who loves hunting, expensive clothes, jewellery and “a fat swan, and roasted whole.” His description of a friar is equally damning:

“He kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls
And pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls.

He knew the taverns well in every town
And every innkeeper and barmaid too
Better than lepers, beggars and that crew,
For in so eminent a man as he
It was not fitting with the dignity
Of his position, dealing with a scum
Of wretched lepers; nothing good can come
Of dealing with the slum-and-gutter dwellers,
But only with the rich and victual sellers.”

Apart from the clergy’s hypocrisy, what irked and infuriated the peasant class in respect of them was the imposition of tithes on what little wealth they could glean from their labours. The church demanded a tenth of their crops and livestock each year. If they did not pay they could be punished by incarceration and excommunication. It is little wonder that peasants were attracted to some of the heretical teachings and their promoters who railed against the greed and mendacity of the established church.

To A Dead Fox

You should be singing at the moon

Serenading your vixen lover

Not cast aside like jetsam

White teeth frozen forever

Snarling helpless at the inexorable

Fume and rumble of morning traffic.

In the noise and bristling heat

You are a bronze illumination

The coil of your neat body and delicate feet

Like an intricate swirling beast

Emblazoning the word in antique psalter.

You etch this morning in flame

Herald this very day a glorious day

Suspended in the move and flux

Of all the every days

In your stillness

I see graceful running

In your silence

I hear joyful singing

In your death

A sermon for life and living.

I will sing at the moon

Sing to your vixen lover

Because your song is in me

Now and forever.

Verm Bludvile, The Candle Lighter

Verm Bludvile swears vengence on Cesare Greyfell, King of Dredgemarsh

“Verm could not remember why, but he hated “them above”. It was in his blood, some old long-forgotten grievance or dreadful wrong done to him. ‘Degenerates and fornicators,’ his father, old Wat Bludvile, used to fulminate at the mention of the royal household and its staff, never explaining, even on his deathbed, the reason for his obsessive hatred. He had also been the Candle Lighter. Verm knew nothing of his mother, but in his grim world of flickering candlelight, the only kindness he had ever experienced was from old Wat. Now, the passing years had almost extinguished that trembling flame of affection and left in its place an emptiness that, on occasions, even the hard armour of bitterness could not repel. But as long as he had his candles to light, the squalor of Verm Bludvile’s existence could be endured.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“Now in the autumn of the fifth year of Cesare’s reign, something startling and strange began to happen to Verm. He was beginning to feel some vaguely unsettling emotions. Ideas, totally alien to him, began to hover and flash indiscriminately across his mind. It took him some time to realise that his unease was growing as the stock of candles, in the storeroom below the Great Hall of Echoes, was diminishing. It was unprecedented; the supply of new candles to the storeroom had ceased. These emerging feelings grew, and changed to fear, and finally terror. It was as if the candles were burning away the hours and minutes of his life.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“… he cursed and howled with rage, until a deadly calm took hold of him and he began to plan his revenge on Cesare Greyfell, the author of his misfortune.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“Verm could smell the hateful pursuers now, could hear the excited baying of the lymers. He turned sharply right through a small opening in the tunnel wall. There was nowhere else to go. The way forward was blocked by the massive granite blocks of Dredgemarsh’s outer wall. He was trapped at last, in a dismal chamber in the very pit of Dredgemarsh. He crouched down in the furthest corner of the room.

Poor Vermie, poor Vermie. He was experiencing an incredible dislocation in time and place. He was a small petrified boy, trying not to cry, not to give himself away and the terrifying unctuous voice saying, poor Vermie, poor Vermie, I’m coming, coming, won’t hurt Vermie…be nice to your…no harm, no harm at all…our little secret, Vermie. The smells came back, rich perfume, nauseating, the sweet comfits, and the soft white insistent hands. Verm Bludvile wailed in anguish. His pursuers stopped, appalled by the sound. It was not anger or defiance they heard, but a cry of unfathomable desolation and loss. Then the lymers gave voice again and the spell was broken. ”
Chapter 19 The Reluctant King

The Reluctant King at:



Farewell to Annie

Annie Towell (nee McCabe)

I cannot reverse the cell’s dissolution

or stop the final slow unyoking

of spirit from blood and bone.

Though your old eyes plead

for consolation,

I cannot help,

cannot speak the words you long for.

You see me rooted, solid in life.

I watch you untethered, drifting

on an ocean of pain

beyond my reaching.

I hold your hand and wish you

a swift journey

beyond all fears.

you, disengaging,

leave me

the miracle of tears.

Dermot McCabe

The Reluctant King

The Reluctant King - Book One of the Dredgemarsh series.

It has taken a very long time but finally I have finished  book one of the Dredgemarsh series I have been writing for many years. The title of this first book is The Reluctant King. The story takes place in Dredgemarsh, an imaginary fortress city. The setting is Gothic and the time is late Middle Age.

The Dredgemarsh Series started out as a very short piece of descriptive writing about an imaginary character who spent his whole life keeping the subterannean halls and corridors of Dregemarsh illuminated with candles. He was the Candle Lighter, Verm Bludvile. I then began to expand on this character and other menials and varlets who laboured in the lower reaches of Dredgemarsh began to emerge. I couldn’t stop them.

The cast began to grow with characters like Francis Burstboil, the kitchen boy, Lazarous Clutchboll, the Cook Meister, and his staff Bella Crumble, Leopold Ratchett and Nellie Lowslegg. A quirky Professor Quickstrain and the court scribes Havelock and Dipslick joined the growing throng.

The problem was, what were all these characters going to do  in this great crumbling fortress. I simply had them milling around like characters from a Bruegel painting. What was the story? Well, I can’t remember how it all started but the idea came to me that Verm Bludvile would be very upset if he lost his job as Candle Lighter.

This event inevitably involved the overlords of Dredgemarsh and the story of Cesare Greyfell, King of Dregemarsh, and the beautiful  Lucretia Beaufort emerged accompanied by a very sinister Chacellor Demetrius  Tancredi and a host of good and bad characters whose lives, loves, wars and death revolve around the almost living presence of Dredgemarsh itself.

The story took off from there and now, almost two decades later I have a series of three books set in Dredgemarsh. But books need polishing; a writer owes his readers the courtesy of making his/her story as accessible and enjoyable an experience as possible. It takes time. If you do purchase The Reluctant King I hope you enjoy it. And remember there are two more books to come after a bit of polishing. Book two is called The Lost Prince and will be published in July.

That’s it for now. The labour has been long but the final delivery sweet.


Big Sugar Loaf and Little Sugar Loaf - North Wicklow, Ireland


 On a sky hill
Lies a green diamond field
Where the wind sings soft
Through sweet grass
And ancient voices steal
Inside my head
Till I am dizzy with desire
For the clayey secret
Of its green diamond fire

                 Dermot McCabe