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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Side Saddle

Object 55 - The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds in its collections a decorated leather and velvet side-saddle made sometime in the 1550s.

Victoria Jackson

Victoria Jackson is studying for her PhD in the History Department at Birmingham.

Riding saddles are mentioned in several plays and poems by Shakespeare.  In The Taming of the Shrew, Biondello describes Petruchio’s dishevelled entrance on horseback to his own wedding as ‘his horse hipped, with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred’ (The Taming of the Shrew, 3.2.48-9).  In Venus and Adonis, Venus pursues Adonis on horseback, longing for him to withdraw from the hunt and accept her love, ‘alight thy steed and rein his proud head to the saddle-bow’ (Venus and Adonis, 33).  Resolving to leave Goneril’s house, an angry Lear shouts ‘[s]addle my horses!’ incensed at his daughter’s orders to reduce his retinue (King Lear, 1.4.244).

A side-saddle, mid-sixteenth century.

SBT 1993-31/950. A side-saddle, mid-sixteenth century. A mid-sixteenth century decorated leather and velvet side-saddle; saddle consisting of padded circular seat with side 'skirts' made from green silk velvet and decorated with applied fringe, braid of silk and metal threads. Seat padding seems to be of cream wool. Reverse is of brown leather, probably with interlining of coarsely woven linen. The whole is constructed over a wooden support covered with linen and mounted on a wooden frame. There are 6 leather straps attached to the underside. Dimensions: Skirt 570mm x 690mm, seat 335mm x 485mm.

But have you ever wondered what an early-modern saddle might have looked like?  The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds in its collections a decorated leather and velvet side-saddle made sometime in the 1550s.  The design of this side-saddle might seem strange to us, visibly different from modern-day side-saddles, and likewise it would have required a certain style of ‘aside’ riding.  The saddle incorporates a large circular padded seat with a tall vertical horn affixed in the front.  The female rider would sit with her body facing entirely to the side, her feet dangling together on the horse’s barrel.  She could clutch the horn with one hand for balance, but as you can imagine this position afforded her little to no control over her horse.  The padded seat, sometimes called a pillion, could be placed behind the saddle of another rider, presumably a male rider, or if she was riding alone, her horse was typically led by a male servant who was walking or riding another horse.  Sometimes, a planchette, a small footrest, was added to the pillion, which transformed the saddle into something like a sideways chair.  A planchette can be seen in this seventeenth-century engraving of Anne of Denmark riding side-saddle, her feet poking out beneath the bottom of her dress, resting on a little wooden platform.

A more functional design which allowed the rider more control was developed at some point in the late sixteenth century.  In this design the horn was moved off centre and affixed to the saddle on the near side, slightly lower down from its previous position.  This enabled the rider to hook her right leg around the horn and face forward.  The planchette was replaced with a ‘slipper stirrup’, a stirrup which incorporated a built-in leather shoe into which the rider would place her left foot.  Although this gave the rider more security, it was not until the nineteenth century that another horn, called the ‘leaping horn’, was added to the saddle, providing more stability and allowing women to gallop and jump their horses.  With the addition of the ‘leaping horn’, it wasn’t long before women like Esther Stace began clearing 6 foot fences and making history, in 1915.