Sunday 18 September 2011

Did Anne Boleyn Ride Astride?

I’m a huge fan of the TV series ‘The Tudors’ and have long since accepted the liberties taken with historical realism. However, one episode – where Anne Boleyn is shown riding astride – had me reaching for the text books. Surely a lady, like Anne Boleyn, would have ridden side saddle?

My research revealed illustrations of women riding, literally sitting sideways on a horse, going back to the vases of ancient Greece. Medieval depictions show women seated side-ways, riding pillion behind men, on a small padded seat.  Anne of Bohemia 1366 - 1394 created the earliest functional ‘side saddle’ – a chair life affair with a small footrest, but the rider was still insufficiently secure to control her mount and so had to be led.
Riding side saddle meant facing forwards instead of sideways, and gave more control.

In the 16th century, Catherine de’Medici developed a more practical saddle, complete with a small horn around which the rider hooked her right knee, with the footrest being replaced with a ‘slipper stirrup’ for the left leg. The meant the rider now sat facing forwards and was therefore able to hold the reins and control her horse, albeit only at sedate paces.
A photo illustrating the secure grip afforded by two horns and a stirrup.

Incredibly, it took until the 1830’s for a design with a second, lower pommel to trap the left leg and add extra grip, was invented. This extra horn or ‘leaping head’ was revolutionary in that it allowed women to stay on a horse at a gallop, or even jumping.
Ester Stace, 1915 - world record the highest jump riding side saddle (6'6")

So as to the question as to how inaccurate is the portrayal of Anne Boleyn riding astride, in The Tudors….The answer goes something like this.
As the centuries passed, women of wealth and position desired to control their mounts, but long skirts and social rules meant that it was considered extremely immodest to sit astride (Anne Boleyn take note!) However, and perhaps this is where the producers of The Tudors took their creative license, not all noble women rode side saddle all the time. Women such as Henry II of France’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great were know to ride astride. So there we have it…who knows, perhaps Anne Boleyn, might…just might…have ridden astride after all.

In series such as, The Tudors, how much does historical inaccuracy bother you?


  1. I think there's some liberty to be allowed and perhaps even encouraged. After all, the Tudors is really intended to be, in my mind, historical fantasy. I dislike it when basic things are tossed aside or missed, however, especially in my pet subjects. (this is why I can't watch Criminal Minds without degenerating in to angry shouting at least once an episode.) So, the short answer is if it's done with intent I am more likely to accept historical inaccuracy.

  2. Hi,

    Ha ha, no doubt the actress refused on the basis she couldn't get her balance of seat correct and feared the indignity of being pitched headlong from the saddle during transition from the trot let alone to the canter.

    Actually, even with a modest horn on a side-saddle it's possible to canter and gallop and, keep one's balance and control one's mount. Hell, bareback riding is the best learning device ever to staying atop a horse no matter what, even over a jump! With a little practise young athletic riders can leap on and off a horse/pony at will at the canter. It's kind of part and parcel of being selected for pony club team events.

    I did see, at an exhibition of riding apparel in a grand house, an Elizabethan mock up of a beautiful gown with split front aperture and beneath, would you believe it, breeches and hose calf length boots! It was re-created from an original Elizabethan pattern. And, did you know, women within the upper echelons of society wore similar to gentleman's hose in winter beneath their gowns when out hawking and hunting. By the time of the English Civil War women of high society were wearing (against all the suggestions to the contrary)silk breeches beneath gowns similar in fashion to that worn by their menfolk as outer wear, which declares knickers were around earlier than imagined and almost identical to those worn during the era of The American Civil War. But, when one studies artwork as seen in the pyramids in Egypt, bikini knickers were in vogue then. So, one could say did a Roman tailor take the idea back to Italy? ;)

    As for the Tudors, well, it's a load of b****cks! :o


  3. I am able to accept some liberties. However, going from liberties to flagrant inaccuracy drives me nuts. (For example, in The Tudors, when they sent Henry's only sister Margaret off to marry the aged King of Portugal, whom she murders??? What the heck??? Margaret married the King of Scotland and Mary was actually sent to the aged King of France, who died after a short time-why was that whole change even necessary???)

    Lauren Gilbert

  4. My daughter rides side saddle, for pleasure but also for competition - historical costume classes
    Because of her interest we have been researching costume - and saddles.

    It seems that ladies _did_ ride astride, particularly when hunting (too fast a pace for the literally sitting sideways saddles mentioned above. These,(a planchette) were for a sedate pace only - probably with a groom leading the horse.
    However, a big problem would be what to wear underneath! Bloomers were not in use then, so either women donned men's hose (and whatever else it was that men wore then - sorry Tudor is not my period!) or they had very chafed thighs.

    The sideways facing "chair" was then turned to face the front - think of a typical western (cowboy) saddle with a tall front pommel, but with the saddle bit looking like a chair, with a high back (like a chair) The lady would face front, her back supported by the "chair" with her right leg hooked round the pommel. I assume this is possible the sort of saddle Anne Boleyn would have used. In the 16th century Catherine de Medici is credited with being the inventor of a second pommel/horn between which the lady placed her right leg and so faced forward, but Albert Durer's etchings of 1497 and 1504 show ladies facing the front of their saddles long before Catherine's second horn. (the forward facing chair saddle?)
    The horn gave women a more secure seat and independent control of their horses, and enabling faster gaits.
    Queen Elizabeth I rode side saddle on ceremonial occasions and, as depicted in woodcuts, also while hawking. Whether this was the forward chair or the "Medici" two horns, we don't know. Side saddle though!
    This "saddle of Queens" was considered the proper way for a lady to ride - astride was considered to be base.

    The Tudor's was dreadfully inaccurate anyway, but this particular scene could so easily have been shot with "Anne" riding side saddle (ok on a modern one for safety reasons - and for the comfort of the horse) Ant lady who can ride astride can ride side saddle - it is actually more comfortable than astride - and I'm sure the production could easily have found a stand-in to ride for her!

    You are welcome to visit my daughters site - lots of info on there & some lovely photos of her in her costumes.
    Anyone in the Essex / Herts area who can ride and would fancy trying out a side saddle - contact Kathy via her site, as she also teaches side saddle!

  5. What an interesting topic. I know when watching a movie or tv series, if I see something out of whack, I'm pulled at of the story. However, it's just for a moment and then I'm back in the story. If the storyline is interesting enough, then those little things that aren't accurate don't bother me. Same with a book. I may notice something, yet if the story is really good, that's all I care about.


  6. Fantastic comments and most welcome! I'm beginning to feel I can hold a reasonable discussion about side-saddle now!
    Francine, fascinating about the riding garments with build in breeches and boots - that would make sense, and would help with modesty problems Helen alludes to. I'm coming to the conclusion I need a follow up post - now I'm so much better informed.
    Thanks once again, Grace x

  7. Sorry but you will find plenty of artwork showing women riding astride. Early side saddles were totally impractical and made it necessary for the horse to be led. Wide skirts were quite ample for hiding the legs, by the way.

    I hate inaccuracy but such assumptions are often the basis of inaccuracy.

  8. Hello Grace! Beautiful pictures and very interesting post! It's so nice to meet you during this blog tour :)


  9. Historical inaccuracy in a television show (or book) purportedly about the past annoys me greatly. I find such shows and books excellent ways to educate myself without boring myself to tears in textbook after textbook. But when these shows/books take creative license and feed me false facts, I feel robbed.

    Interesting post about sidesaddles!


  10. I would love to see more historical accuracy in period movies or shows... especially corsets on the women! They're a lot more comfortable than you'd think. But yes, the earlest sidesaddles were quite uncomfortable to sit in and so most ladies, if they had to travel would either sit in a carriage/wagon or ride astride.

    lol It's why I love the Society for Creative Anachronism, yes we cheat, but not the way "Hollywood" loves to cheat.

  11. LOL, I believe in having an open mind when it comes to historical accuracy because it all depends on which history buff is watching a historical event.

    Me for one could not see how anyone could ride side-sadle and feel balanced enough to gallop or even race a horse. I think if i lived back in the historical days I would of rebelled and rode a horse like a man and probably would of sneaked into some mens clothes while I was at it. However you have to realize that I am all Tom boy, a Army Veteran, and really dont care much for dresses. LOL

    All in all, I think this is a very interesting discussion and seeing the different opinions. But what I like best is that when I read about a woman who rebells in a historical and rides off on a horse like a man and forget all about being lady like - totally feisty and strong female character.

  12. I'm not an expert on Tudor history OR equine affairs! However, my instincts tell me that in Tudor times, peasants walked ... and if your family could AFFORD a horse, any female 'lady of leisure' would be more likely to ride in a CARRIAGE, behind a horse rather than ON one ...!

    1. HI Paul - it would depend on the period whether there would have been any carriages around for her to ride in... or suitable roads for it to travel on. Think Wild West and Conestoga wagons. Only without springs!

  13. I think there has to be historical accuracy in something such as the Tudors. Certain historical fiction books, you want there to be just enough historical accuracy to say "oh yea that did happen" but some fiction mixed in so it's unique. But, with the Tudors, since I love it some much too, needs to have accuracy :o) Thanks for hosting the tour stop!


  14. I do my best to research as much material as I can when I'm writing my stories. And, I like to learn in an entertaining way, so its nice for books and TV to be as accurate as possible. Also, my husband is a WWII re-enactor and is very fussy about historical accuracy. You really don't want to watch The History Channel when he's in the room. One of these days he's going to start throwing stuff at the TV!


  15. Thee re liberties and liberties, if they are not too intrusive or outrageous in their ambition then I would not balk at reading it. Great post and pics.

  16. Interesting topic. I don't like extremely obvious things, but I'm sure it just depends on what the person knows who's reading &/or watching a particular story. Riding astride wouldn't bother me because I would just assume that some women bucked the trend as they always do. Cool post.

    geschumann at live dot com

  17. I expect inaccuracies, so don't let it bother me too much. If the TV show or movie is interesting I can forgive.


  18. I think she rode side saddle. Wonderful post.
    Kydirtgirl68 AT gmail DOT com

  19. If it says it's history, then it should stick as close as it can to the known facts, IMO.
    "The Tudors" is like "Braveheart." It's best to assume that everything in it is wrong. Then you're more likely to be right than to be wrong.
    Telling that in the UK, the first two series of "The Tudors" were shown on BBC2 at 9pm. ie a prime time on a minor channel, then relegated to the worst time possible - against the Saturday night blockbuster schedules of BBC1 and ITV. It didn't catch on. When people had stopped laughing, they got bored.

  20. As a Civil War historian, I detest inaccuracies in a period I know so much about but other periods, it doesn't bother me so much. I guess it's hypocritical but... :-) Love learning about side saddle riding.

  21. Historical inaccuracy bothers me a lot. Facts are easy to verify. Women rode astride more often in history than they rode side saddle.

  22. Small liberties such as this does not bother me. However, I agree with other commentors in that they should stay as close to historical fact as possible. Thanks for the great post-I learned a few things.


  23. As usual, Grace, an incredibly interesting post. Thank you.

  24. As long as it is not huge inconsistances (ie no electricity, etc) small ones don't bother me much. Something such as riding side saddle or asride would not matter as much to me, unless the woman was supposed to be doing jumps, etc side saddled. Seems like that would be hard, if not impossible to accomplish without falling.
    manning_j2004 at yahoo dot com

  25. I think Anne would have followed the other ladies in riding side-saddle. She already stood out enough to snag Henry. But that's just my opinion.

    LOVE this post and photos!

  26. Just popping by to say hi ☺ I'm trying to visit every one’s posts and promote each page individually, my progress is sadly very slow.
    I'm not sure if your giveaway is international but I'll enter in the hopes that it is ;) Personally, as long as the inaccuracies aren't massive I don't mind them so much.
    This was a great post and I'm off to shout your name to the twitter heavens!
    Jen ;)

  27. An inaccuracy like that would bother me a great deal. Minor items don't bother me as much but I still think they should be right.

    Thanks for the giveaway!

    Robin D
    robindpdx (at) yahoo (dot) com

  28. Just making my rounds, popping by to say hey, joining blogs and tweeting. Minor inaccuracies don't bother me much as long as the plot is good and I've connected with the characters

  29. This is really very interesting, and I didn't realize that some women were made to ride sidesaddle as far back as Greek times! I always did think Catherine the Great rode astride. She was Empress of All the Russias after all, and did hold gender-switch balls where she would dress as a man. I know that some women in the 1700s including Marie Antoinette would wear specially made riding outfits with split skirts, and some went full-hog and just wore all-male outfits including breeches for riding. (Catherine astride) (Catherine sidesaddle)
    Marie Antoinette must have that riding horn to hook her leg around here:

  30. Too much bothers me, but then again, is it really a true LOOK at history, or is it a slightly twisted, alternative look at history?

  31. I take tv for enjoyment. I let liberties be taken without much annoyance..

  32. I hope you don't mind a very late comment from a drive-by reader, but some of your sidesaddle research is a little out of date. While it doesn't answer the question of what people in the past actually did, modern recreations of the sideways-facing saddle have found that they certainly can be ridden at speed and under independent control. A useful account is here:

    As someone has said above, there are also historical images of forward-facing sidesaddles before Catherine de Medici, such as Durer's work from 1496 and 1504. She may have popularised the style, but she didn't develop it. The shift from one central pommel (as in men's saddles of the time) to two that would cradle the cross-wise thigh is interesting, especially as the offside one begins to disappear before the appearance of the third (or leaping) pommel :) Durer's women appear to have two pommels, not one central one, suggesting a specialised saddle rather than adapting one built for men.

    Women also rode aside to hounds before the invention of the leaping head in the 1830s - it required more balance and wasn't as safe as in a later saddle, but it was absolutely possible if one was a good enough rider. The leaping head made riding to hounds accessible to all adequate women riders, rather than just the excellent ones.

    The Tudor era is a little after my time so I can't address the specific point, but styles in riding weren't discrete with firm cut-off points - Queen Elizabeth I's hunting saddle in the Booke of Venerie is shown sideways with a single horn and planchette at least 70 years after women started riding forwards, and saddles without leaping heads were still being made in the 1880s, as a well known equestrienne writing then, Nannie Power O'Donaghue, advises that women make sure to buy or commission one with a leaping head even for park riding, and even sideways-saddles are evidently still in use, as some from the time are extant in museums and private collections. At least in artwork throughout Europe, women are riding both aside and astride well into the 1700s, in all strata of society. It seems to have been locality and fashion that dictated style, rather than firm social restrictions, despite modern conventions otherwise. It's not impossible that Anne Bolyn would ride astride, but given the show under analysis, it seems more likely that it was done out of convenience rather than as a contribution to the historical debate.

    (Project Gutenberg has some usful books on riding in the 1800s, if you are interested.)

    Please excuse the 'anon' posting, as I have no blogspot account. I am an an amateur but dedicated entheusiast of both sidesaddle riding and medieval history, and can be reached at

  33. It's a bit late to comment, but better late than never. I second Dusk and Helen in most topics. (I'm a sidesaddle rider, too) During Tudor times women were depicted riding aside with a planchette most of the time. There are examples of women riding astride, but that seemed to be rare in the 16th century. In my experience it is no problem to canter riding à la planchette. We constructed a chair saddle similar to Ilaria Veltri's based on a vintage swiss army pack saddle and I tried it out. It was no big deal, even using a horse with modern gaits. There was no need for a sedate pace or a groom leading the horse. I even have two aquaintances who are able to ride aside without a saddle when cantering. Do not forget in the 16th century horses used for traveling and hunting where palfreys , 4- or 5 gaiters. They where trained to use the Pace and the ambling gaits like Tölt, Running Walk, Rack or the Paso Gaits, that are really smooth and comfortable.
    The depicted riding habit is very anachronistic. The earliest appearance of a riding habit with a train draped over the Horse's croup was in the second half of the 17th century - more than a century after early Tudor times. Before that time the ladies took great care, that their riding dresses did NOT touch the horse. They used large saddle cloths and kept their skirts near their own bodies.

    Queen Elizabeth I. did not solely use a side ways saddle with a planchette like in the Booke of Venerie. It exists an extant saddle drape owned by her, that proves that she used a saddle like the Durer saddles with two flat pommels.

    By the way, during Tudor times riding was the comfortable way to travel. The horse litter induced motion sickness and carriages... well, there is a contemporary account about Queen Elizaeth's royal proceedings for which she used an extravagant carriage. The chronicler reported, that the Queen was unable to sit for a week after using the carriage. Back than there were no roads suitable for unsprung carriages.
    These inaccuracies really bother me. Not even the costumes are correct.
    ~ Brigid


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