Hussar!!! Or not, as the case may be…
In the last few months there’s been a great deal of online debate regarding the 1805 pattern British Napoleonic period Hussar saddle. As with most disagreements over historical details, this one is due to a lack of definitive information in the historical record, and a dispute over the origins of the (apparently) only surviving hussar saddle in the UK, in the Royal Armouries museum.
The saddle in the picture is a reproduction, made by a friend of mine who’s a member of the 15th Light Dragoons (XVLD) re-enactment group – you’ll find a link to their website on the right.
The hussar saddle was so called because it mimicked a design used by Hussars or Hungarian light horsemen; popularly employed as mercenaries by Western European armies since medieval times (‘hussar’ translates as ‘pirate’ in Serbian). It was the first British suspended-seat saddle, the idea of which continued from its introduction right up to the present day 1912 UP (Universal Pattern) Saddle, still in use by the Household Cavalry and King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
The Royal Armouries saddle was apparently discovered in a dusty back room at saddlemaker Jabez Cliff & Co – better known nowadays as Cliff Barnsby. The problem is this saddle’s front arch has no spoon (the protrusion at the top of the arch) and appears never to have had one. A saddle which had lost its spoon in action might be expected to show some damage at the top of the arch, but this example has none.
Spoons were an essential feature of the 1805 pattern saddle. Part of the cavalryman’s equipment was a padded leather (pilch) pad – a little like a modern-day ‘seat-saver’ – which fitted on top of the stretched leather seat. The pilch had loops front and rear which were hooked over each spoon to keep it in place.
Major Geoffrey Tylden believed the saddle was genuine, using photographs in his excellent 1965 book Horses and Saddlery: An Account of the Animals used by the British and Commonwealth Armies from the 17th Century to the Present Day with a Description of their Equipment. Carl Franklin followed his lead in his 2009 study British Napoleonic Uniforms.
But a number of sources have come forward to query the saddle’s authenticity. One of the problems is that few cavalry diaries specifically mention saddles, and then only in passing, probably because they were written by officers with more important things on their minds (like finding the nearest party!), making contemporary descriptions as rare as rocking horse poo.
So the question arises – is the Royal Armouries example a genuine early hussar saddle, is it later (1850’s), or is it a conversion of an original to mimic a later model? Is it an artillery saddle, as has been suggested? Could it be an apprentice’s exercise or even (horror of horrors) a deliberate, late Victorian or Edwardian fake?
And is its authenticity even that important?
Well – it is to me. I like to know that when I write that my real historical facts are correct, or at least generally believed to be so. But I also like a puzzle; anything historians fail to agree on. Sometimes those disagreements can get quite bloody, which is brilliant.
Because ‘grey’ areas are meat and drink to a writer; times and places when a fictional character can affect great events: without truly altering history – just suggesting that he did…
PS: If anyone comes across an obscure Georgian or Regency cavalryman’s diary, describing in detail what the British hussar or Light Dragoon thought of his saddlery, I’d be grateful to know about it. Along with a few thousand other enthusiasts!
PPS: If you want to know what a French Hussar saddle of the same period looked like, there’s a picture below. Note that the French had no saddle flaps. It’s just not the done thing, vieil homme!