Operation Centaur - Heritage Skills

Henry VIII and the Shire Horse

Nearly 500 years ago, Henry VIII started the process to acquire the ultimate War Horse. In 1535 and 1540, he instigated two acts that governed the breeding of horses in England.

The Breed of Horses Act 1535 mentions a marked decay in the quality of the breed, the cause it is claimed that:

in most places of this Realme little horsis and naggis of small stature and valeu be suffered to depasture and also to covour marys and felys of very small stature.

The statute thus required each owner of enclosed deer parks to possess a minimum of two mares whose height was to be above thirteen hands high in order for them to be bred with horses of no shorter than fourteen hands high.

King Henry VIII followed by Sir Anthony Browne and Sir Charles Brandon 1st Duke of Suffolk (Cowdray Engraving)
King Henry VIII followed by Sir Anthony Browne and Sir Charles Brandon 1st Duke of Suffolk (Cowdray Engraving)

Henry VIII’s Horses Act 1540 ordered that no stallion under 15 hands (60 inches, 152 cm) and no mare under 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm) was permitted to run out on common land, or to run wild, and no two-year-old colt under 11.2 hands (46 inches, 117 cm) was allowed to run out in any area with mares. Annual round-ups of the commons were enforced, and any stallion under the height limit was ordered to be destroyed, along with “all unlikely tits whether mares or foals.”

The purpose of this was to breed a war horse that was suitable to carry the heavy armour into battle – and especially to prevent large horses being acquired by the enemy.

This breeding programme persisted until the 19th Century, when the acts were repealed The Statute Law Revision Act 1863. Henry’s breeding programme resulted in the great agricultural work horse, that saw a renewed purpose in the Industrial Revolution. During this time, heavy horses were in demand on docks, for haulage, and transport – they were the lorries of their days. The advent of the internal combustion engine signalled their demise, and post WWII, they were all but redundant and virtually died out.

And so it was that the Shire Horse became (and still is) the largest horse in the world. Shire horses are currently designated at risk by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist – rarer than the Giant Panda. Now the breweries have stopped deliveries with horses, the Shire horses at Hampton Court Palace are part of a small herd that are the last working Shires in London. A suitable tribute to Henry VIII’s plans 500 years ago.

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In partnership with The Royal Parks, Historic Royal Palaces and  Shire Horse Society