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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

a) Medieval movement and attire. Getting it right (and wrong)

2) Of knights and winches, cranes and hoists… The myths of how knights mounted their horses

Robert C. Woosnam-Savage

Texte intégral

1It is often claimed that medieval knights, weighed down in their plate armour, could only mount horses with the aid of some mechanical device, such as a crane. This erroneous idea—no medieval knight had to be hoisted onto a horse because of the weight of his armour—is found in some popular accounts of the Middle Ages. There are even modern academics who still describe this method of mounting a horse as fact.

2It has been repeatedly claimed that this idea originated from the work of Mark Twain (1835-1910) and in particular his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). However, even this claim is nothing but another myth itself, as a close reading of the book shows; although Twain mentions a “derrick” in passing, no knights are described as being hoisted by such a device.

3In fact the earliest references that the present author has been able to find date back to satirical reports of the mid-nineteenth century regarding the Lord Mayors of London. In the 23 November 1843 edition of Punch, or the London Chiavari (a satirical British weekly magazine) an article about the “Lord Mayor’s Day, the 9th of November, 1843” makes mention of “Crane charges for hoisting the knights into their saddles.” This reference appears to be the first known published mention of cranes, or any mechanical assistance, being required to hoist “knights” onto their mounts. This event was followed the next year by the celebrations laid on for Michael Gibbs, whose Lord Mayor’s Day, or procession, occurred on 9 November 1844. A somewhat scurrilous and disparaging account in the 22 November 1845 edition of Punch stated that: “the utmost difficulty was experienced whilst lifting him into his saddle … which rendered it necessary to hoist the Knight into his seat on horseback by means of a powerful crane.” What makes this quote stand out is the accompanying “cartoon” (as in comic illustration) of a “knight” in plate armour being lowered onto his horse. Needless to say, there is no evidence that a crane was actually used to hoist anybody onto anything; this image was a satirist’s pen at work for a satirical publication. Punch became famous for its humorous “cartoons” and this is exactly what the 1845 cartoon was: a joke.

4Although the earliest known illustration depicting an armoured figure being “hoisted” found thus far, this small example by itself was probably not large enough to have caught the wider public imagination. Something must have happened for the idea to have blossomed into accepted “historical fact.” It would have needed to be in a work that drew a wider audience, quite possibly by an author of Twain’s undoubted popularity, but if not by Twain, then by whom? There at least two candidates: Edgar Wilson Nye and Arthur Moreland.

5Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) was another immensely popular American humourist who was not only a contemporary of Twain but almost equally revered. Better known as Bill Nye, he is now barely remembered, but Nye was also a huge success in his day. One of Nye’s most widely read works was his Comic History of England (1896), where it is stated that: “… no man could ever climb a horse in full armour without a feudal derrick to assist him.” This quip is the third-earliest reference to knights having to be hoisted onto horseback.

6Arthur Moreland (1867-1951) was a cartoonist for The Morning Leader, and his cartoons were reprinted in a series of books: Humors of History and More Humours of History. The first volume was published in 1898, and Plate 60 illustrated a knight being hoisted into his saddle, under the title of “A Day in the Life of a Twelfth Century Feudal Baron. No. 3—HE MOUNTS HIS WARHORSE.” The cartoons proved so popular that at least ten editions appeared, and the fact that The Morning Leader was one of the first daily newspapers means that this image presumably became a comparatively well-known one. The present author suggests that it is these two popular works that led to the myth becoming widespread.

7Once movies got hold of the idea, it was reborn for a new and larger audience. David Butler made the first sound adaptation of Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee (1931), and this successful film, starring the hugely popular Will Rogers, contains the first known surviving depiction of a knight being hoisted onto a horse in a movie—and it is obviously played as a joke. The idea perhaps most famously appears in Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V (1944), but perhaps surprisingly for such a supposedly widespread and well-known medieval trope, it would seem to appear comparatively rarely in both film and book.

8Whilst it cannot be denied that the notion obviously caught the imagination of some, it really does not seem to have been a widely held “popular belief” or appear “in book after book and film after film,” as has been stated. For instance out of over nine hundred “medieval movies” made between about 1900 and 2006 the present author has only, so far, identified six containing such a scene. There in fact appears to be more than one myth in this story.

A Day in the Life of a Twelfth Century Feudal Baron. No. 3 – HE MOUNTS HIS WARHORSE’, Humors of history, Arthur Moreland (1898).

A Day in the Life of a Twelfth Century Feudal Baron. No. 3 – HE MOUNTS HIS WARHORSE’, Humors of history, Arthur Moreland (1898).


9Moreland, Humors
Moreland, More
Nye, Comic
Twain, A Connecticut Yankee


10A Connecticut Yankee
Henry V

Table des illustrations

Titre A Day in the Life of a Twelfth Century Feudal Baron. No. 3 – HE MOUNTS HIS WARHORSE’, Humors of history, Arthur Moreland (1898).
Fichier image/jpeg, 542k


Royal Armouries Museum–Leeds

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