Anglo-Saxons 11: a bit
This is an Anglo-Saxon horse bit, part of the harness used to control a horse. It was excavated at Dover Hill, Folkestone.
The horse bit goes between the horse’s teeth. It’s made from iron, hinged in the centre and is about 16cm long. You can see the cheek pieces (the iron loops) on each side where the reins would pass through.
Horses were an important part of Anglo-Saxon culture. They were used for riding, pulling carts and hunting.
You can see how important were for the Anglo-Saxons from the number of words for horse in Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons). There are different words for cart horse, war horse, breeding horse and riding horse.
Interestingly, there’s no Old English word for plough horse. Oxen were used for ploughing.
An English place name beginning with ‘stud’ or ‘stood’ means that horses were bred there in Anglo-Saxon times.
Horses had a religious significance to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Bede, an 8th century historian, wrote that the chieftains of the first Anglo-Saxons to land in Kent were Hengist and Horsa (whose names are Old English for stallion and horse).
Most historians now think Hengist and Horsa weren’t real people, but the names of gods associated with horses, given human form to provide a creation myth for Anglo-Saxon England.
Horses were the only way to travel fast and they were good at pulling heavy loads. So horses were valuable items. They often appeared in bequests of property or as part-payment in land purchases, and Anglo-Saxon kings often rewarded followers with the gift of a horse.
A charter of King Eadred, dated to 949, mentions a racecourse in Kent, indicating that horses were raced for sport in Anglo-Saxon times, just like today!