Southern Europe during the early Middle Ages had many fine examples of horse flesh, in part due to surviving Roman breeds, and in part due to magnificent Arabian breeds brought to the continent via the Moorish conquest of Spain. In Northern Europe and the British Isles, not so much. Here was the home of the humble Palfrey – an comical shaggy beast looking rather like a slightly over-grown Shetland pony.

Ah, but the Palfrey had a neat trick. People even slightly familiar with horses know that they generally have four "gears" or gaits: walk, trot, canter and gallop (Yes, yes, there are purists who say a gallop is just a fast canter.) Riding a horse at a walk is quite relaxing. It seems as if the world is going by in slow motion, but that’s because it is. An extended trot will shake any loose fillings you may have right out of your mouth. And contrary to the old westerns, a horse cannot sustain a canter/gallop mile after mile. But the Palfrey could AMBLE – a smooth, sustainable and fairly swift fifth gait that could get the rider where he was going in short order, and comfortably. Today, there are still a few breeds that can amble; Iceland is famous for them. When teams riding these make their entrance at horse shows, there are polite giggles, as if the crowd is expecting a rodeo clown act. The captain uncorks champagne, pours each rider a full glass, and then they zoom around the ring three times, stopping at the judges booth to toast and down drinks that have not lost a drop – and the crowd goes wild.

What’s this got to do with our liberty, you say? Well, picture England in your mind like one of those ant colonies you can buy, with the little critters going to and fro. Before carriages with strap suspensions and better roads, it was the humble palfrey that facilitated the exchange of ideas, goods and services throughout the realm. They became as valuable as the finest war horse (Destrier) – and living symbols of shifting priorities.

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