Rutland’s horseshoes: a tale of superstition and obsession

Popular culture tells us that horseshoes bring good luck. If this is so, then Rutland should be the luckiest county in all of England. A tradition dating back hundreds of years requires nobles visiting Oakham, Rutland’s biggest town, to present the local Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe. All horseshoes thus gifted to the Lord are displayed on the wall of his Great Hall at Oakham castle. As we discovered when we visited Oakham earlier this year, the horseshoe collection numbers over 200 and continues to grow.

Ornate horseshoes big and small adorn the walls of the Great Hall of Oakham Castle

But in a cruel twist of fate, Rutland’s horseshoes may not be lucky after all. Traditionally, British people believe that horseshoes can only be lucky if they are hung with the closed cup at the bottom, and the two open ends pointing skyward. But in Rutland they do it the other way round. Are these people crazy, or have they got a point? Read on, and I’ll tell you more.

Why are horseshoes considered lucky?

To begin, however, let’s explore why horseshoes are considered to be lucky. In times past the blacksmith was regarded as something of a benevolent magician. Here was a man who could, with only fire and brute strength to assist him, conjure from useless rock a valuable metal with a thousand useful applications. If blacksmiths were magicians, then iron and the wares they fashioned from it, such as horseshoes, must be imbued with good fortune too.

Added to this was the fact that horseshoes were traditionally secured with seven nails. Within our culture seven is regarded as the luckiest number, and this – combined with the good fortune attached to blacksmith magicians – confirmed the association between horseshoes and good luck.

The horseshoes quickly became status symbols, intended to show off the wealth, good taste and fine breeding of the people presenting them.

There’s also a religious dimension, dating from the 10th century. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Dunstan worked as a blacksmith. One day the Devil appeared before him and asked the future Archbishop to shoe his horse. Although recognising his visitor, blacksmith Dunstan said nothing, while secretly hatching a cunning plan.

Instead of fixing the shoe to the horse’s hoof he nailed it to the Devil’s own foot. The Devil howled with pain and rage. He probably swore a bit too, and demanded to be released. However Dunstan stood firm, and only agreed to remove the shoe after receiving Satan’s solemn promise that he would never enter a dwelling with a horseshoe nailed to the door. And so, according to the story, horseshoes are so imbued with good fortune they can even keep the Devil at bay.

The traditional British way of hanging horseshoes, with the cup nearest the floor, is said to ensure that the good luck will be safely stored there, and will not spill out to be wasted. Rutland folk, however, believe that nailing a horseshoe to the wall with the open end at the bottom will ensure that good luck falls onto those passing beneath it. This way of hanging it is also said to prevent the Devil hiding in the cup of the horseshoe, from where he might otherwise orchestrate mischief and mayhem.

Horseshoes presented by two members of the family of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill

So which way of hanging up a horseshoe is correct? Who knows?…I certainly don’t, but anyone of a superstitious disposition may be wise to have two horseshoes, one hanging with the cup at the bottom and the other with it at the top. It’s called risk management, guys!

Rutland’s historic obsession with horseshoes

Anyway, moving swiftly on to Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes, which dates back many hundreds of years. At the time of the Norman Conquest, one Henry de Ferrers was Master of Horse to the man who became known to history as William the Conqueror. Henry’s coat of arms featured six black horseshoes (with the closed, or cup, end at the top!) on a silver background. Later, as a token of his gratitude, William rewarded Henry with many grants of land, including the manor of Oakham, where the de Ferrers family later built a castle with a Great Hall.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of York have both presented horseshoes

The de Ferrers family name is a corruption of the word French word ferrier (farrier – a person who shoes horses – in English), and therefore hints at the family’s long association with the iron industry. So at some time in past, probably after too much ale had been consumed, some bright spark in the family came up with the crazy notion of demanding that all noble visitors be required, on their first trip to Oakham, to acknowledge their host’s heritage by presenting the Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe.

It tells us something about the power of the de Ferrers family that visitors went along with this daft demand. But typical of the aristocracy, before long they’d turned it into a contest, visitors trying to outdo one another with the size and extravagance of the horseshoes they presented.

The oldest horseshoe remaining in the castle collection was given by King Edward IV in the late 15th century, and is decorated with the royal coat of arms. From the late 18th century onwards the practice emerged of donors decorating their horseshoes with coronets to signify their rank within the British peerage system. In a stroke, therefore, the horseshoes were turned into status symbols, showing off how wealthy and “well-bred” the donors were.

Oakham castle’s Great Hall dates from 1190. It is believed to be the earliest and best preserved aisled hall in northern Europe

Although there are approaching 250 horseshoes on display in Oakham castle’s Great Hall, this is only a fraction of the number that have been presented over the centuries. In the early days of the tradition, horseshoes were displayed on the castle gates rather than the inside wall of the Great Hall, making them vulnerable to theft. Also, over the years, some of the less impressive donations have been quietly “mislaid” and forgotten. And in the early 20th century great numbers of horseshoes were melted down as scrap metal to help the war effort during the First World War.

Despite all of the losses, the collection remains mightily impressive. The internal walls of the Great Hall are festooned with the good, the bad and the ugly of the horseshoe world. And yet it’s still possible to find room for a new one when a member of the Royal Family comes calling: in 2003 Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, presented a horseshoe. Eleven years later his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, followed suit.

Rutland’s horseshoes come in all shapes and sizes!

Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes is quintessential British quirkiness. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s also strangely endearing, a bit of harmless fun. I just wish they’d hang their horseshoes the correct way up. In these troubled days of pandemics and wars, climate crises and mass extinctions, mankind needs all the good luck it can muster. Carelessly allowing good fortune to leak out and blow away by hanging your horseshoes upside down just isn’t good enough, Rutland!

19 comments

  1. Yeah, Another Blogger · 22 Days Ago

    That’s an impressive, quirky collection. Horseshoes never looked so good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 21 Days Ago

      Yes, very quirky, but also good fun. When we saw the we, and all the other visitors there at the same time, were wearing big, toothy grins throughout 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Laurie Graves · 22 Days Ago

    Fun to read about the history of why horseshoes are lucky. In the United States, we, too, believe the shoes should be hung so that the cup is done and the luck doesn’t run out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 21 Days Ago

      I guess the association between horseshoes and good luck, as well as the tradition of hanging them cup side down, came to the US with early settlers from the UK?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Paddy Tobin · 22 Days Ago

    Yes, here in Ireland, we would regard the Rutland horseshoes as being upside down!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 21 Days Ago

      While researching this post I came across several references suggesting that horseshoes are sometimes used as symbols of good luck at St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Adds to the craic, I guess?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Paddy Tobin · 21 Days Ago

        I have a collection found while digging our garden.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. kaymckenziecooke · 22 Days Ago

    An entertaining and informative account. We have a horseshoe at our gate (standing the wrong way up I’ve learnt after reading this) from my husband’s grandparent’s farm. It is from a shire horse (draught horse) so it’s rather large – and rusty so would not stand up to the rather splendid specimens in Oakham hall. For us the old horseshoe – that’s possibly 60 plus years old – serves as a reminder of farming practices of days past and family members long gone. (But I might turn it over next chance I get!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 21 Days Ago

      Thank you! A rusty horseshoe could be seen as symbolising impermanence and decay, and would therefore offer pithy social commentary on the fate of the noble class that gifted so many of Oakham’s horseshoes! Incidentally, it’s good to know that shire horses made it to your country – what magnificent creatures they are!

      Liked by 1 person

      • kaymckenziecooke · 2 Days Ago

        I love those horses. Yes they were very important to early settlement and breaking in of the land.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. tanjabrittonwriter · 21 Days Ago

    One could count this collection as proof of not only British quirkiness, but of mankind’s need or desire to collect the oddest items. But I don’t think you should fret about the way the horseshoes are hung. I quite like the notion of good luck falling onto those who pass beneath them, so you should be covered either way!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ann Mackay · 16 Days Ago

    So visitors should make a point of standing under the horseshoes in the hope that good luck will rain down upon them – could be marketed as an extra reason to visit! 🙂

    Like

  7. Adele Brand · 11 Days Ago

    What a lot of horseshoes! It’s interesting to reflect on how significant the blacksmith was in earlier times. For pulling teeth out as well as the more glamorous job of creating horseshoes…

    I’ve never been to Rutland but it sounds like it might be a fun county to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 10 Days Ago

      Rutland is worth a long weekend at least. As well as horseshoe-crazy Oakham there are some pretty villages, and the birding at Rutland Water is good (including ospreys in summer, and occasional red kites all year). If you do make it you might also call in at Stamford, just across the border in Lincolnshire, which is an interesting historic town. Enjoy!

      Liked by 1 person

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