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!

~ by cavalrytales on March 29, 2011.

27 Responses to “Hussar!!! Or not, as the case may be…”

  1. Like you I try and try to get as much fact before I right. Obviously you do much better than I, my friend. Love the saddle and it franky looks a bit comfy but over hours I bet the lacing rubs the inner thighs. One must get used to that.
    As an historical writer, I liked readingthe other day when it comes to that “grey area” we’re more historical revisionists. Try as we do, we willnever know it all


    • It is comfy (I’ve ridden on it) and they used a sheepskin over the top of the padded seat as well as a decorated saddle cover for parades, so no chafing from the leather thongs. It can’t have been that pleasant when it rained, though – sheepskin’s like a sponge. And they wore wool overalls. Soggy bum doesn’t cover it!


  2. Yes, I do hope an accurate identification of the “1805” Royal Armouries example can eventually made.
    Am very impressed by the reproduction example shown in this article which, I am sure, must be very close to the original. There would appear to be a detailed description of the British Hussar saddle in the Dutch archives taken from a few thousand of the British saddles sent to Holland in 1814.

    On another matter, I notice in your article you refer to the 1912 saddle still in use. I am only, hesitantly, pointing this out as many years ago when I Knew much less, and first read Mike Chappell’s book, I was puzzled by his references to the UP 1902 saddle as UP1912!. It took me some time to fathom this out.
    The UP1912 saddle appears not to have been generally, if at all, issued in the British army, though widely issued in the Commonwealth cavalry regiments. The Household Cavalry, since their earlier use of the UP1890 saddle have had their own special pattern….which may have been introduced in 1918. The RHA use the UP1902 pattern.


    • Thanks for that info, John – it just shows how careful one needs to be and how much confusion there is concerning patterns. I must confess I still think I know ‘much less’ – just when you believe you’ve got a fact sorted along comes another memoir to put a slightly different slant on things.
      Best wishes,


  3. Jonathan – I seem to remember that Major Tylden stated that the front “spoon” was ordered to be removed circa 1816 so it may be a later version and was never constructed with one.


    • In ‘British Cavalry Equipments’ there is a later wood-frame saddle shown with just a rear spoon so I suspect you’re right. If the remainder of its contruction was the same as the 1805 then how was the pilch attached? It would have needed to be tied onto the front arch (through the holster-strap slots?).
      Or maybe they did away with the pilch and relied on just a sheepskin. It’s so frustrating there appear to be no written records. Maybe something’ll turn up when we least expect it.


  4. I have made a copy of the “1805” saddle in the Royal Armouries. (a good copy, it took me three years). I am still studying it. It is quite a well designed and made piece, and it all seems to fit the criteria for an early light cavalry saddle. You are correct in your comment that it has never had a front spoon but there are other ways of attaching the pilch to the front arch.

    I do think the front spoon is ugly and is a bit of a hazzard.

    I have had people commenting on the authenticity of the saddle for years but to press I have had no evidence one way or the other.


  5. Hi Robert – thanks for your post. The front spoon issue won’t go away, will it?!. I’ve often wondered about that feature and suspect the original Hungarian design incorporated it as a useful hand-hold for aping Cossack horsemanship tricks – if they’d just wanted it as another point to attach equipment there were simpler solutions.
    Shame that we’ll probably never know for sure.
    I’d be really interested to see your saddle, though.


  6. Yes Robert, I would like to see your copy as well.


  7. I will try to do some photographs , but it is just a straight copy of the one in the Armouries. The interesting aspects are the ‘add on’ bits, mostly copied from Crimean relics, etc. I still need to do more research with it. Cavalry is not really my thing.
    Does anyone know where I can get blankets of the right weight and size? The nearest that I can find that meets the British (and French Napoleonic) spec is a Hudson Bay 8 point blanket.


  8. I love this and I loveeeeee the pictures.


  9. The identification of the Royal Armouries saddle as a Dutch saddle is mine. Of this particular saddle I have only a description, but there are drawings of other versions. Its an 1897 colonial artillery saddle, based on the 1855 home artillery saddle, which in its turn is based on the saddle adopted by the Dutch cavalry a few years before.
    I promised to post these drawings as soon as I have a scanner installed, which is going to happen soon.


  10. Did you take a look at the pictures?


  11. I looked at your drawings of the Dutch saddles last year, Rob, and am convinced your true identification of the Royal Armouries saddle is correct. I recall making a iist of comments on the site of the Society of the Military Horse.


  12. Hi Rob – I did, thanks, and I agree with you. I really hope that some small collection, or a museum vault, has a British example tucked away in a dusty corner that’s not yet come to light.


  13. Well, thank you both.


  14. […] Hussar!!! Or not, as the case may be… […]


  15. Please check this link with pictures of the italian army saddle designed in 1903


  16. […] Hussar!!! Or not, as the case may be… […]


  17. There was a comment regarding the use of the front spoon on the hussar saddle. The hussar saddle is a development of a Tatar style of saddle preceding its use by the Hungarian hussars by several centuries. Crimean Tatar troops in the service of the Ottoman Sultans used them and popularised their use in several countries they raided like Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. Various German museums like Karlsruhe and Dresden have good early examples. The major difference appears to be that the Tatar saddles had the stirrup slots closer to the centre of the seat than the English example. The lacing of the bearing strap of the seat appears to be a Hungarian innovation, but I am not sure of that. The early saddles I have seen from Turkey do not have laced seats, but that may be a statistical anomaly. I have not seen a large number. Incidentally this feature existed in Caucasian saddle trees that often underpinned Cossack saddles (under those large seat cushions).

    The Tatars were mounted archers who stood in their stirrups when they shot and leaned forward on the pommel. The Mongols and Tatars rode using the reins almost exclusively for steering their mounts rather than to control the head position of the horse. Leg aids were also incompatible with their riding style so they used no spurs. In fact early steppe saddles had large flaps that prevented the heels from having much impact on the horse. When the saddle was adopted in western Europe with its different riding styles and different requirements of of the cavalry, changes were made to adapt the saddle to its new use. At first the high front pack, in its various forms, kept the rider’s hand higher than was compatible with some riding practices. The pack was lowered and the spoon was removed gradually leading to more modern saddle shapes.

    My interest is in the earlier saddles and I was attracted to this forum because of the research done on hussar saddles, which was useful to me. This small piece of information is by way of a thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

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