Great Horse of Troy from John Lydgate, Siege of Troy (mid-fifteenth century). The John Rylands Library, Manchester. (Rylands English MS 1, fol. 145v)

This illustration is in an illuminated manuscript of the Troy Book or Siege of Troy, a poem written in Middle English by John Lydgate (1370–1451). It is a retelling of the Trojan War of Greek myth. The manuscript measures 451×326 mm and is illustrated throughout by an unnamed English illuminator.

The foreign body in this image is the Trojan Horse, depicted here as a giant, golden horse, wearing a bright red bridle and saddle. The horse is much larger than everything around it. It is bigger than the tents in the camp, where the seer Calchas, saddles it. The horse is also taller than the walls of Troy. It has been illuminated with gold leaf. Combined with its sheer size, the use of gold makes the horse an impressive and unmissable figure.

The Greeks besieging Troy, encouraged by Calchas’ prediction that Troy would fall, hid their best warriors inside the horse, offered it to the Trojans as a gift, and retreated from the city.

This depiction of the horse appears to differ from ancient myth. The illuminator does not make it clear that the horse is being used to hold Greek soldiers. Rather, it is simply so large that it cracks apart the walls of Troy allowing the Greek army, depicted wearing medieval armour, to invade and complete the destruction of the city. The horse no longer conceals the foreign bodies of an invading military force, but becomes an active foreign body itself, used to effect the destruction of the city. The horse changes from an object of deception to one of strength and power.

Lydgate was commissioned to compose the Siege of Troy by Prince Henry of England (later Henry V) in 1412. It was completed in 1420. The Trojan War was a popular subject for medieval writers, contributing to a literary tradition whereby royalty claimed descent from the Trojans in order to legitimise their own claims to their thrones. The tradition came quite late to England, being first popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer’s retelling of the Troy myth in his Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1380). Henry IV (1367–1413), Henry V’s father, had deposed Richard II in 1399 and spent much of his reign fighting plots against him, often conspired on the grounds that Henry IV was not the ‘rightful king’. Thus, Prince Henry’s commission of the Siege of Troy was apposite.

Lydgate’s interpretation of the Siege of Troy also reflected on a longer period of foreign hostilities. The people of England had grown weary of the long conflict, later known as the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), over the French throne. Lydgate composed the Siege of Troy as an allegory about the nature of war. The poem is filled with warnings against using violence to resolve conflict. Lydgate’s version of the war is filled with ‘tit-for-tat’ conflict, where diplomacy is rejected and violence ultimately prevails, all to the detriment of the city of Troy.

The horse, therefore, can be seen as a demonstration of this danger. Depicted as it is here, the horse is a figure of brute strength, which is shown to engage literally in the physical destruction of the city of Troy. Emphasised through its size and the use of gold to illuminate it, the horse is unmistakable to the reader, even at a glance, as the instrument used to enact violence and destroy a city, thus embodying Lydgate’s view that such violence is not the answer to resolving conflict.

Katy Ellis

Further Reading: 

Wilhelm G. Busse, John Lydgate. The Sege of Troy. Colour Microfiche Edition of the Manuscript, Manchester, the John Rylands University Library, MS English 1 (Munich: Edition Helga Lengenfelder, 1998).

Andrew Lynch, ‘“With face pale”: Melancholy Violence in John Lydgate’s Troy and Thebes’ in Joanna Bellis and Laura Slater (eds), Representing War and Violence: 1250–1600 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2016), 79-94.