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Tudor horse cemetery in Westminster ‘likely resting place for imported animals’

Horses imported for the elite during the Tudor era were buried in a cemetery in Westminster, new research suggests.

Analysis of the unusual animal burial ground discovered in London nearly 30 years ago has revealed the international scale of horse trading at the time.

Using advanced archaeological techniques, researchers could identify where several physically great horses came from, and the likely routes they took to get to Britain.

These animals – akin to modern supercars – were sourced from a variety of locations across Europe specifically for their height and strength.

They were imported for use in jousting tournaments and as status symbols of 14th to 16th century life.

The animals in the study include three of the tallest animals known from late medieval England, standing up to 1.6 metres, or 15.3 hands high.

Although quite small by modern standards, this size would have been very impressive for their day.

The horse skeletons were recovered from a site under the modern-day Elverton Street in the City of Westminster, which was excavated in advance of building works in the 1990s.

Researchers say that in medieval times, the cemetery would have been located outside the walled City of London but was close to the royal palace complex at Westminster.

Dr Alex Pryor, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Exeter, and lead researcher, said: “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.”

In the first experiment of its kind to be conducted on medieval horse remains, the researchers took 22 teeth from 15 animals and drilled out portions of the enamel to analyse.

Researchers were able to identify the potential origin of each horse – and accurately rule out others, by measuring certain elements in the teeth and comparing the results with known ranges in different geographies.

Dr Pryor said that at least half of the horses were of diverse international origins, possibly Scandinavia, the Alps and other northern and eastern European locations.

The findings are consistent with the breeding patterns of royal stud farms, the experts suggest.

Horses would live on the farms until their second or third year, before being either broken and trained, or sent elsewhere to be sold.

When looking at the teeth researchers found evidence of wear, suggesting 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.

Further analysis of the skeletons revealed many of them to be well above average size, with several instances of fused 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, said: “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, emphasising its international scale.

“It is apparent that the medieval London elite were explicitly targeting the highest-quality horses they could find at a European scale.”

The study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is published in Science Advances.