The Tale of the Nobles’ Horseshoes

Tales from End to End
The Tale of the Nobles’ Horseshoes

by Tim Clough

A thousand years ago Rutland, or at least much of it, formed part of the dowry of the queens of Anglo-Saxon England. The last such queen was Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor, who lived beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066, and died in 1075. Oakham was the centre of her Rutland estate, and when she died her manor there should all have gone to the Abbey of Westminster as Edward the Confessor had wished. William I, however, had other ideas: although the church and some of the land – which became Oakham Deanshold – did indeed go to the abbey, he took the castle and the rest of the manor – Oakham Lordshold – into his own hands. Oakham Castle became the administrative centre of the county of Rutland, and was to remain in the gift of the crown for centuries to come.

When most people think of castles, they imagine towers and battlements, ditches and drawbridges. Oakham Castle is not like that because it was really a defended manor house. It does indeed have earthworks and some surviving perimeter walls, but the remaining building is its famous Romanesque Great Hall, dating from about 1180. We know from a report of 1421 that there were once many other buildings in the enclosure, but these have all long since disappeared. In fact, it is said that the main reason for the survival of the Great Hall was its use as a courthouse – courts continued to sit here until very recently.

The Great Hall is one of the finest surviving vernacular buildings of Norman date in the country, well-known for its sculptures. There are musicians above the columns and other smaller carvings which have to be sought out. But what strikes the visitor first and foremost is that its walls are hung with dozens of over-size horseshoes, all bearing the names of peers of the realm. For an explanation, we have to go back once more to the eleventh century.

The Horseshoes of Oakham Castle
The Horseshoes of Oakham Castle

When William I acquired Oakham Castle, he gave it to one of his barons, Walkelin de Ferrers, who was an ironmaster in Normandy. We think that this was a deliberate choice, because much of Rutland was rich in ironstone and Walkelin would have known how to make the best use of this valuable resource. It also seems likely that at the time the Normans indulged in a little word-play. Walkelin’s manor in Normandy was at a place called Ferrières: the place-name derives from ferrum, the Latin for ‘iron’. The English word ‘farrier’, someone who shoes horses, is from the same root, and the French for ‘horseshoe’ is fer à cheval. Perhaps this is when the lords of the manor of Oakham were granted a unique symbolic right, that of demanding a horseshoe from any peer of the realm on their first visit to the manor.

The earliest documented instance of a horseshoe dates from 1470, probably after the Battle of Losecoat Field which took place near the Great North Road a few miles north of Stamford, when Edward IV ‘commanded’ a horseshoe to be put up. This is almost certainly the impressive wrought-iron shoe in the centre of the west wall. Since then, over two hundred others have been surrendered to successive lords of the manor, and this is a tradition which has continued right up to the present day. Horseshoes have been given by peers of every rank, including law lords and bishops sitting in the House of Lords. Even royalty are not exempt, and there are horseshoes from Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family too.

The castle is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I listed building, and its grounds are freely open to the public. You can even be married in the Great Hall, which is licensed for civil ceremonies. Archaeological surveys are taking place which we hope will enable us to unravel a little more of its history, and to envisage what life was like during those medieval centuries when besides the Great Hall the earthworks also enclosed the lord’s private rooms and his chapel, as well as kitchens, stables, barns and even a gaol: and when the lord might have to give up his apartments because the king was coming to stay.

Tim Clough is the Editor of the Rutland Local History & Record Society