The large, prosperous churches built in many parts of Cumbria during medieval times show how England and Continental countries valued the various grades of cloth made of wool from the "sheep walks" of the Lakeland fells. The prosperity of the monasteries was also built on the sturdiness of the Fell ponies who carried the "woolpacks" to the spinners and dyers, and the panniers of metal ores to the smelters.
Too many horses were being exported, to the detriment of the British stock; so to prevent this, Henry VIII brought in new rules forbidding the export of mares above a certain value. Also, because much of the stock was not up to the weight of a mounted knight, it was made an offence to breed from inferior animals, and the owners of certain sizes of property had to keep a given number of mares over 13 hands for breeding. This was not because the horses were needed to carry knights into battle, since heavy cavalry was already outdated following the introduction of firearms. In any case the knight's destrier had been a strong cob rather than the modern seventeen hand agricultural giant.
In addition, "little stoned horses (small stallions) and nags of small stature" were not to be used on any mares, while two year olds that did not attain to "the height of fifteen handfulls" were to be removed from common grazing in certain counties. Autumn drives to round up the stock had to take place within 15 days of Michaelmas, and any "unlikely tits" or "unprofitable beastes" were then to be killed off.
Cumbria was too far away and too wild to be much affected by Henry VIII’s edicts. Fortunately for the Fell, as with other ponies which have taken their names from their home range, certain wild, harsh areas were exempt from this law. This was probably due to the fact that the common lands here were too poor to be able to support large horses, even if they had been bred there, and this was mentioned in later decrees. One such decree by Queen Elizabeth I in 1566 stated that these and similar lands were exempt because of "their rottenness ... [they] are not able to breed beare and bring forth such great breeds of stoned horses as by the statute of 32 Henry VIII is expressed, without peril of miring and perishing of them." How much of the killing off was actually carried out in other areas is uncertain as in 1580 Queen Elizabeth had to proclaim that to ensure the "breed and encrease of horses", in future the penalties for non-compliance would actually be applied, and not winked at as in previous times.
It could be that the isolation of these many pockets of stock resulted in the individual characteristics of the UK pony breeds we see today. The areas included Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland, the Bishopric of Durham, Rutland, the Soke of Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Monmouthshire, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall.
The Fell was not the only animal that endured in its usual form. Even as late as the Civil War in the 17th C, horses seem to have averaged around 13 hands.
William Harrison, chaplain to Lord Cobham, and later Rector of Radwinter in Essex and Canon of Windsor was allotted the task of writing the "Descriptions of Britain and England", dated 1577, which accompanied Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicles". The Chronicles are well known as the source of much of Shakespeare's history plays, describing as they do the reigns of various Scottish, English and Irish kings.
Harrison's observations about horses and cattle (1577, Book III., Chapter 8; 1587, Book III., Chapter. I.]) are noteworthy. He comments on the ambling paces of English horses and on which were commonly gelded and which left entire:
Our horses, moreover, are high, and, although not commonly of such huge greatness as in other places of the main, yet, if you respect the easiness of their pace, it is hard to say where their like are to be had. Our land doth yield no asses, and therefore we want the generation also of mules and somers (packhorses), and therefore the most part of our carriages is made by these, which, remaining stoned (entire, ungelded), are either reserved for the cart or appointed to bear such burdens as are convenient for them....
Such as serve for the saddle are commonly gelded, and now grew to be very dear among us, especially if they be well coloured, justly limbed, and have thereto an easy ambling pace. For our countrymen, seeking their ease in every corner where it is to be had, delight very much in those qualities, but chiefly in their excellent paces, which, besides that it is in manner peculiar unto horses of our soil, and not hurtful to the rider or owner sitting on their backs, it is moreover very pleasant and delectable in his ears, in that the noise of their well-proportioned pace doth yield comfortable sound as he travelleth by the way.
Of such outlandish horses as are daily brought over unto us I speak not, as the jennet of Spain, the courser of Naples, the hobby of Ireland, the Flemish roile and the Scottish nag, because that further speech of them cometh not within the compass of this treatise... ( ref)