“King James I.’s love of racing,” writes a trustworthy chronicler of
the movements at the court of James I. and Charles I. “was due to the
importation into England of the first Arab horse ever seen here.”
That simple statement records one of the most important incidents
that has occurred in the development of the horse in this country, an
incident that subsequently proved to be of great moment in connection
with the history of Great Britain. For though the assertion has many
times been controverted, careful research proves beyond doubt that
until the arrival in England of the Markham Arabian—which in after
generations was to become so greatly renowned—no Arab of any sort had
been brought into this country.
[Illustration: STATUE OF COLLEONI BY VERROCCHIO IN VENICE]
The stories that have been told of this, the first of the famous
Eastern sires, are numerous, and, as is usual in such cases, the
majority of them are apparently untrue.
One of the most widely circulated of the misstatements was to the
effect that the price paid by King James to Mr Markham for this
particular Arab sire was not less than £500, and in papers and books
almost innumerable, in which the Markham Arabian is mentioned, this
false statement is repeated.
That it is false beyond dispute is proved by the actual entry of the
purchase that may be seen to this day in the Exchequer or Receipt
Order Books in the Public Record Office. The entry runs as follows:—
“Item the 20th of December, 1616, paid to Master Markham for the
Arabian Horse for His Majesty’s own use, £154, 0. 0.”
It is almost inconceivable that anyone can seriously have believed
that £500, or any sum approaching it, could have been paid for this
sire, for at that period no sum approaching £500 ever was paid for any
horse, the purchasing value of money being until after the reign of
James I. so much in excess of its purchasing value some two centuries
That several thoroughbred Eastern sires were bought by James is well
known, among the last to which reference is made by the historians
being the famous Villiers Arabs, which the king does not appear to
have acquired until towards the end of his reign.
Yet in spite of all that has been said and written about John
Markham’s stallion, the horse was not, according to that excellent
judge of horses, the Duke of Newcastle, the class of animal that any
man would have chosen to breed from for looks, for, in the duke’s own
words, “He [the Markham Arabian] was a bay, but a little horse, and no
rarity for shape; for I have seen many English horses far finer….
Mr Markham sold him to the King for five hundred pounds (_sic_), and
being trained up for a course, when he came to run, every horse beat
I believe I am right in saying that the identity of John Markham has
never been positively traced, also that the consensus of opinion
inclines to the belief that he was the father of the famous author,
Gervase Markham, who for many years held the post of keeper of
Clipston Shraggs Walk, in Sherwood Forest.
Among the works of Gervase Markham is a volume entitled “Cavalarice,
or the English Horseman,” in which many grotesque and unintentionally
humorous passages are to be found.
Each of the eight books which together go to make up this work is
dedicated to some distinguished personage, of whom James I. is one,
and Henry, Prince of Wales, another.
To James I. we are probably indebted for the existence of the town
of Newmarket, for it is certain that he not only inaugurated the
construction of the village, but in addition brought his influence to
bear upon its development, and that he greatly helped to stimulate the
interest which the people of Newmarket and the neighbourhood already
took in the breeding and training of running horses. It may be partly
for this reason that Newmarket is still so often spoken of as “the
Notwithstanding the disappointment the Markham Arabian must have
afforded James I., we read that the king offered a silver bell of
considerable value to be run for at Newmarket, that the entries
for the race were numerous, and that “the event gave rise to much
speculation, wagering and public interest.”
It was, indeed, in this connection that Ben Jonson wrote so
caustically, or rather satirically, in his famous “Alchemist,” and
alluded incidentally to “the rules to cheat at horse races.”
Elsewhere Jonson describes, and mentions by name, some of the race
horses that probably were well known on the Turf at about that period.
Seeing how keen the interest was that James I. took almost from
boyhood in all that related to the Turf, and to the breeding of race
horses, we can hardly be surprised to hear that during his reign the
general interest in the breeding of “great horses,” which had been so
marked a feature of Henry VIII.’s reign, also of Elizabeth’s reign, at
one time threatened to die out.
Robert Reyce speaks of this in his “Breviary of Suffolk,” a book which
he dedicated to Sir Robert Crane, of Chiltern, and elsewhere allusions
are to be found to the decay of interest in the breeding of “great
Indeed James appears to have admitted quite openly that the bare
sight of the animals bored him “owing to the clumsy appearance they
presented,” a view that is shared to-day by several of the more
prominent of our owners of race horses.
Under the circumstances it is amusing to find the king himself
inditing a ponderous treatise “for the instruction and edification of
his son,” Henry, Prince of Wales, a treatise suitably enough entitled
“Religio Regis: or the Faith and Duty of a Prince.”
Apparently he wrote the greater part of this work at Newmarket, for in
it he alludes more than once to the races which were being held there
at the time, races at which he had been present on the day he wrote.
That he deemed horsemanship to be a form of exercise of inestimable
value becomes obvious as we read “Religio Regis”; but then in the
reign of almost every monarch from about the beginning of the Stuart
period down to the time of the four Georges great stress is laid by
the various sovereigns upon the advisability that the sons of the
nobles and of the aristocracy should become proficient horsemen.
The author of “The Court of King James” also is emphatic in his advice
to courtiers “to be very forwardly inclined to bring up horses,”
adding that such horses should be bred from the best strains only,
and that no matter how great the sum expended in order to secure good
strains, the money could not be looked upon as wasted.
Of the royal studs in the reign of James I., the most important
probably were those at Newmarket, at Eltham, at Tutbury, Malmesbury
and Cole Park, and among the manuscripts in the British Museum there
may be seen to-day an interesting list of the “necessaries” which
appertained to the royal stables, all classified under separate
headings—geldings, cart horses, coursers, hunters, battle horses, and
Remarks upon the part played by the horse in history at about this
time are to be found also in Lodge’s “Illustrations of British
History,” where, in the third volume, we read that on 6th April 1605
there arrived at Greenwich Palace “a dozen gallant mares, all with
foal, four horses, and eleven stallions, all coursers of Naples.”
These the archduke begged King James to accept as a small mark of the
esteem in which the king was held by himself and his country-men.
In the historical records of almost the whole of James I.’s reign we
find reference made repeatedly to race horses, also to the sport of
hunting. An important fixture, as we should call it to-day, apparently
was the Chester Meeting. It took place on St George’s Day, and the
chief race was known as “The St George’s Cup.” The riders carried ten
stone, and the entrance stake was half-a-crown.
A quaint rule in connection with this race was that the winning owner
had to contribute to a fund for the benefit of the prisoners confined
in the North Gate jail “the sum of six shillings and eightpence or
three shillings and fourpence, on certain conditions.”
In addition to the cup, silver bells were run for at this meeting,
and it is interesting to learn that before removing their prizes the
cup winner and the bell winners were compelled to deposit “adequate
security”—presumably with the race committee—for these trophies. For
all the principal trophies had to be run for again at the following
meeting, and we are told quite seriously that it was feared that if
the temporary owners were allowed to remove these prizes without
leaving any security they might have been disposed to make away with
them before the date of the next meeting!
At the Chester Meeting, and therefore presumably elsewhere, the
sheriff acted as starter, “and if any rider committed foul play during
the race he was disqualified in case he won.”
About the year 1624, however, certain changes were made in the rules
of racing, and from that time onward some of the races were run five
times round the course instead of only three times, also the winner
of a cup became entitled to retain it as his property “upon the first
occasion of gaining it.”
Professional jockeys in the reign of James I. held, in a sense, quite
a good position. The king associated with them frequently, especially
at Newmarket. Indeed, he openly admitted that he preferred the company
of sportsmen to that of politicians, and that the surroundings of the
racecourse and the pleasures of the chase attracted him far more than
did the business of the state.
His enemies, as we know, took advantage of these carelessly uttered
assertions when later they set to work to encompass his downfall, and
during the closing years of his reign he was made to suffer unjustly
for many of the minor follies of his youth.
It was wholly characteristic of James that he should upon one
occasion—he was staying at Croydon at the time in order to attend
the race meeting that was held there in Easter week—have in a sudden
access of emotional enthusiasm created his friend, Philip Herbert, a
knight, a baron and a viscount in the course of a few minutes.
This he is said to have done in order to mark his appreciation of
Herbert’s self-control when, after being struck in the face by a
Scotsman named Ramsey, Herbert refrained from hitting back.
Though the king and all his courtiers and many strangers were present
upon the occasion, Herbert did not betray the least sign of annoyance,
though the blow was a severe one.
It should be borne in mind that during James’s reign the Scots had, as
a nation, come to be almost execrated, so that the affront was all the
The king is said to have expressed it as his opinion that under the
circumstances Philip Herbert’s self-restraint came near to being
As James’s fondness for racing increased, so did the great majority of
his nobles, his barons and his courtiers profess to grow fonder of the
sport, while many soon took to gambling with great recklessness.
This the king apparently encouraged them to do, for we learn that he
was “wont to laugh heartily when told that some of his sycophants
had lost exceptionally large sums of money,” or, as was frequently
the case, that one or other of them had been compelled to part with
a portion of his estates in order to meet debts of honour. The women
of the court also aped the king at this time, as indeed they appear
to have done in almost every age. Yet their losses were small by
comparison with the sums lost on the Turf by their daughters and
granddaughters in the reign of Charles II., half-a-century or so later.
Two years after James I. had ascended the throne there set in one of
the coldest winters this country has ever known, with the result that
a long stretch of the River Ouse became frozen over and so afforded
the king an opportunity, of which he was quick to avail himself, of
organising a race-meeting on the ice.
Drake tells us that the course extended “from the tower at the end
of Marygate, under the great arch of the bridge, to the crane at
But even so early as this in the reign of King James the opponents of
horse racing began to raise indignant protests against “the folly and
wickedness of betting on running horses,” protests to which but scant
attention was paid.
Not until some years later did the extremely zealous clergyman named
Hinde set seriously to work to denounce the practice of gambling in
any and every form, and he appears then to have spoken and written so
forcibly that many persons of intelligence and education—I quote from
a trustworthy source—gathered round and strove to encourage him to the
best of their ability.
Racing in particular he waged war against, declaring it to be “an
exercise of profaneness diligently followed by many of our gentlemen
and by many of inferior rank also.” Great injury, he maintained, was
done by men of rank and others “who of their weekly and almost daily
meetings, and matches on their bowling greens, or their lavish betting
of great wagers in such sorry trifles, and of their stout and strong
abbeting of so sillie vanaties amongst hundreds, sometimes thousands,
of rude and vile persons to whom they should give better, and not
so bad example and encouragement, as to be idle in neglecting their
callings; wasteful in gaming, and spending their means; wicked in
cursing and swearing, and dangerously profane in their brawling and
These observations, and many more to the same effect, are to be found
in the “Biography of Bruen”; yet in the long run the diatribes made
but little difference, for the passion for gambling had taken a firm
hold of the people of almost all classes, and while it lasted it
We do not hear of many famous horses during the reign of James I.,
save the sires which the king himself imported; yet it is certain that
the popularity of the horse increased during the first two decades of
the seventeenth century, quite apart from the popularity that betting
upon horse races continued to acquire.
As a natural result, perhaps, greater attention soon came to be paid
to the management and care of horses, to feeding and exercising them,
so that probably the owners of the thoroughbreds of those days had
begun to realise, as they do not appear to have done before, that
a horse’s working years may be considerably prolonged if he be fed
carefully and exercised regularly.
Indeed the crass ignorance that until about this time had prevailed
with regard to the treatment of sick horses comes near to being
ludicrous. Superstition, as we know, was rampant in connection with
the curing of suffering humanity, and various forms of superstition
extended in a great measure to the treatment of animals that were out
Thus we read of horses supposed to be possessed by evil spirits,
when what they probably were suffering from was an attack of simple
staggers; of witches being consulted when a horse went lame, and paid
liberally for their grotesque advice, and so on to the end.
That horses so often went lame at about this period was due probably
to the ignorance of many of the farriers of the very rudiments of
In Ireland, possibly also in parts of England, a horse with what is
called to-day a “wall” eye was looked upon as a harbinger of evil,
and deemed likely to bring bad luck, especially upon the family and
relatives of the man who owned it; while any man so “ill-advised” as
to breed a fearsome creature of this kind often was afterwards glanced
at askance by persons who before he had numbered amongst his friends.
Then there existed also a superstitious belief in connection with a
horse with a white hoof, but what this particular superstition was I
have not been able to discover. Apparently the owner of a horse so
marked was glad enough to get rid of it for a sum much below its true
worth, and generally he deemed himself fortunate if able to sell such
a horse at all.
An instance is on record of a weakly foal being left out all night
in a snowstorm as a superstitious test. We are told that it died
of exposure, and that its owner at once thanked God for His mercy
in having taken from him a creature born with an evil spirit, the
inference being that but for the alleged evil spirit the little foal
would have been able to withstand the rigour of the blizzard and the
Stolen horses in particular were believed to possess a supernatural
power that would enable them to find their way home to their rightful
masters if they succeeded in escaping from the thief. But plenty of
horses, as we know, are to-day able to find their way home from a long
way off, horses that have not necessarily been stolen.
In justice let it be said that James laughed to scorn the majority of
these superstitious beliefs. This is strange, for in some respects he
must have been almost as superstitious as many of his courtiers—and
for that matter as the great bulk of his subjects.
Partial to tall horses, he expressed a wish that his nobles should not
ride cobs, deeming such animals to be out of keeping with the majesty
of the court.
It was probably for this reason that he strove to encourage his
subjects to ride tall horses.
Then, though several historians appear to take it for granted that
the Turkish horse was unknown in England until the arrival of the
famous Byerley Turk in 1689, we may rest assured that Turkish horses
were here in James’s time, and probable before his time. Blunderville
is only one of the early writers who say so in so many words.
Incidentally he mentions that fully a century before the Byerley Turk
was brought over he himself had seen “horses come from Turkey, as
well into Italie as thither into England, indifferentlie faire to the
eie, tho’ not verie great nor stronglie made, yet very light and swift
in their running, and of great courage.”
Also we read that about the year 1617 “half-a-dozen Barbry horses”
were brought to England by Sir Thomas Edmonds and stabled at Newmarket
in the royal paddocks.
A quaint description is to be found in the works of several of the
writers in James I.’s reign of an accident that befell the king in
December of the year 1621 as he was riding after dinner, an accident
that in spite of its undeniable grotesqueness might well have proved
The king, it seems, had “gone abroad early in the day, and to
Theobald’s to dinner.” He appears to have enjoyed his dinner at
Theobald’s greatly, and to have decided quite suddenly, as soon as the
meal was over, that he would like “to ride on horseback abroad.”
The accident that presently was to occur is attributed by different
writers to different causes, the most charitable of the reports
being to the effect that the king’s horse stumbled and threw his
royal master on to the frozen surface of the New River “with so much
violence that the ice brake and he fell in so that nothing but his
boots were seen.”
Sir Richard Young, who chanced to be riding just behind him, instantly
sprang off his horse and succeeded with the help of a friend, though
only with great difficulty, in dragging the dripping monarch “out of
the hole and his undignified predicament.”
According to another chronicler, “there came much water out of his
mouth and body,” yet “His Majesty rid back to Theobald’s, went into a
warme bed, and, as we heere, is well, which God continue.”
That the king had a sense of humour is made manifest by the statement
that upon his recovery he laughed heartily at the recollection of the
incident, while we are further told that his gratitude to Sir Richard
Young, his rescuer, “did not stop short at the hearty grasp of the
hand he gave him.”
Mention has already been made of James’s strange literary work,
“Religio Regis: or the Faith and Duty of a Prince.” This is said to
have been written during the King’s temporary residence at Newmarket
“for the betterment of his health” (_sic_).
It was produced primarily for “the instruction and edification” of
his son, Henry, at that time Prince of Wales, but it came to be read
widely by his nobles and all about the court.
In this remarkable treatise we are told that “the honourablest and
most commendable Games that a king can use are on Horseback, for it
becomes a Prince above all Men to be a good Horseman. And use such
Games on Horseback as may teach you to handle your Arms thereon, such
as Tilt, Ring, and low-riding for handling your sword….
“As for hunting, the most honourable and noblest Sport thereof is with
running Hounds; for it is a thievish sport of hunting to shoot with
Guns and Bows….
“However, in using either of these Sports observe such Moderation
that you slip not therewith Hours appointed for your Affairs, which
you ought ever precisely to keep; remembering that these Pastimes are
but ordain’d for you to enable you for your Office, to which you are
call’d by your Birth.”
Before the close of James’s reign the Turf bore every sign of having
been granted a fresh lease of life. Private riding matches among men
of rank and wealth had become popular again, and though some of these
were “’cross-country matches,” plenty were ridden on the flat, upon
which occasions vast sums of money were run for almost always.
Of these races one that seems to have attracted much attention was run
in the year 1622, for a cup valued at twelve pounds, when the crowd
that assembled was one of the biggest at that time on record.
The wagers that were made were mostly in large sums, and we are told
that, to the surprise of the majority of the betting men “and their
subsequent discomfiture,” the race, in which there were six “tryers,”
was won by an outsider, the property of a popular sportsman, Sir
The judge in this race was a Mr Humphrey Wyvell, and so greatly
annoyed did the crowd become at the defeat of the favourite that they
made a desperate attempt to attack the judge, with the intention of
injuring him seriously, an attempt that fortunately was frustrated.
We are not told if the king was present upon this occasion, but the
principal racing men of the period undoubtedly were there. The king
himself attended a meeting at Lincoln in the spring of 1617, where he
lost very heavily.
Towards the end of this reign strong opposition to the increasing
popularity of racing began to manifest itself among what we should
to-day call the middle class, owing, so it was said, to the sport
being vigorously denounced from pulpit and platform as a growing
national evil, “one likely to imperil the whole country’s prosperity.”
For some time the king strove to smother these denunciations, and he
even partially succeeded in the attempt.
Yet in the end the people must have triumphed, for we read that
James was still on the throne when some of the more popular of the
flat-race meetings were tacitly allowed to be abandoned, while in
1620 the meeting which usually had been held at Thetford was directly
suppressed by an order of the Privy Council.
Among the most important of the private riding matches, as they were
then called, that took place in James’s reign was the one arranged at
Newmarket between Lord Haddington and Lord Sheffield.
Run at Huntingdon towards the end of the year 1607, the race was
extremely exciting from start to finish. Both men appear to have been
good riders, and the stake run for is said to have amounted to a
Yet the various accounts of the match give versions which differ
widely as to what happened, and while one writer declares that Lord
Haddington won with difficulty, another contradicts him by maintaining
that the stake was awarded to Lord Sheffield.
With regard to the pictures that are said to have been drawn from life
in those days, if they are true to life it becomes obvious that some
three centuries ago it was not customary for race riders, or “tryers,”
to stand in their stirrups while riding races, as they do to-day and
most certainly did in the last century and the century before it.
This is strange, for some of the earliest of our writers who touch
incidentally upon the subject of race riding are rather emphatic in
declaring that the jockey should get rid of all “dead” weight, and of
course it is chiefly by standing in the stirrups that “dead” weight
can be neutralised.
James I. would seem to have paid more attention to the theory of
training horses he intended to run than any of his predecessors
did, though this is not great praise, so ignorant of the fundamental
principles of scientific training were the horse owners of about that
Upon slight provocation horses were freely bled, just as human beings
were bled or “leeched” less than a hundred years ago. Indeed we read
of one horse that was bled while in the hunting field, owing to its
having proved too restive for its owner to ride with comfort (!);
while another was driven into a leech pond in order that the leeches
might suck off “the goodlie warts” with which its belly and thighs
So far as I have been able to ascertain, about a century and a half
ago the leech cure was deemed quite the best for warts. Yet perhaps we
are wrong to think or to speak contemptuously of the ignorance of our
forefathers. Who can say that in years to come our descendants may not
speak as contemptuously of us—their ancestors—because we fired horses,
and because we drenched them with physic for various ailments?
Indeed there are already veterinary surgeons who aver that to fire a
horse under any circumstances is to commit a grave blunder, and that
firing as a general practice ought emphatically to be abandoned.
The early history of Newmarket is more or less wrapped in mystery, or
rather in confusion; in other words, the writers who have dealt with
“the inauguration of Newmarket racing,” as one of them terms it, in
many instances contradict one another so flatly that the truth can be
arrived at only by conjecture or by inference.
Apparently the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was the ill
wind that indirectly benefited Newmarket so far as its horses were
concerned, for there is no doubt that many of the horses rescued from
drowning when the great vessels of the Armada were wrecked were sent
direct to Newmarket, “where great surprise was expressed by all who
beheld them at their exceeding swiftness.”
From this one would naturally conclude that interesting races were
run on Newmarket Heath towards the close of the sixteenth century; yet
elsewhere we read that the first races of importance run at Newmarket
took place in 1640, and that the round course was not made until about
the year 1666, while a third historian goes so far as to declare that
a gold cup run for at the Newmarket Spring Meeting of 1634 affords
_per se_ the earliest irrefutable record of such an occurrence, based
on contemporary data.
Yet from statements set down in an earlier chapter we have already
seen that horse racing of a sort must have taken place at Newmarket
quite a long time before this. In point of fact, in almost every
historical record of Newmarket that I have come upon I have found
either direct or indirect allusion to the renown of the neighbourhood
of Newmarket for the horses that were bred or trained there.
The horses brought ashore from the Spanish vessels probably were among
the best that Spain at that time possessed, and several attempts were
made by the Spanish to recover some of them. It is known that towards
the close of the sixteenth century the Spanish were making determined
efforts to breed faster horses than they had previously bred, yet it
is surprising that the horses they had brought with them upon their
famous expedition should have been so swift, for they must have been
animals of far heavier type than the animals they would in a general
way breed for racing.
The Spaniards of three centuries ago, we must of course remember, were
renowned for their horsemanship far more highly than their descendants
of to-day are.
In the reign of Charles I. horse races were run in Hyde Park, a
track having been laid down there with great care. This meeting was
immensely popular, and “the inhabitants of London and those parts near
London assembled in their thousands to watch the running horses,” and
in most instances to squander large sums.
“The Park first became under Charles I. the fashionable society
rendezvous,” Mrs Alec Tweedie tells us in her interesting volume,
“Hyde Park: Its History and Romance.” “Its greatest attraction, maybe,
was the racing in the Ring. The occasions when organised meetings
took place were special scenes of gaiety, and were evidently thought
important events, as even among the State Papers there is preserved
the agreement for a race that took place there.”
In later years an attempt was made to revive the Hyde Park race
meeting, but the attempt was vigorously opposed by the mass of the
residents in the neighbourhood, and by many others as well.
A report of a race in Hyde Park appears in a copy of _The London
Post_, but is undated. As _The London Post_ ceased to exist after the
year 1640, this race was run probably a year or two before that
date. The report is said to be the first detailed account of a horse
race ever published in a newspaper.
“I made a present to the King,” Sully writes, “of six beautiful horses
richly caparisoned, and the Sieur of St Antoine as their keeper.” The
Sieur of St Antoine, who after being equerry to Prince Henry became
equerry to Charles I., is represented in the famous Vandyck picture of
King Charles in armour, in the picture now in the National Gallery.
[Illustration: VAN DYCK’S FAMOUS PICTURE, NOW IN THE NATIONAL GALLERY,
OF CHARLES I ON HORSEBACK]
* * * * *
It was about the year 1641 that the Duke of Buckingham greatly helped
to improve the breed of horses by importing the famous Helmsley Turk
and the almost equally famous Morocco Barb. It is curious to read that
the importation of these horses was at first looked upon with grave
suspicion by a great body of the principal horse breeders in this
country, and by others interested in the horse and its development.
To what the antagonism was owing one can hardly say for certain. One
report has it that some among the duke’s personal enemies—he had many
enemies—were determined to do all in their power to injure him by
wrecking any scheme in which he presumably was interested. The sums
he paid for these horses were considerable, but the excellent effect
the good blood had upon the breed fully repaid him for the incidental
outlay, also for the great trouble to which he had been put to secure
such excellent stallions.
Shortly before this some English officers serving in the Dutch army
had introduced horse racing into Holland, and the popularity of
the new sport began to spread there quickly. Soon a number of race
meetings came to be organised, and in a short time Dutch emissaries
were sent over to England for the express purpose of purchasing blood
Being comparatively ignorant of horses—ignorant, that is to say, of
the requirements essential in a racing stallion—these emissaries were
at first cheated in the most barefaced manner by some of the very men
who only a short time before had been their guests in Holland!
Later, however, they succeeded in importing some very valuable blood
stock, and in several respects the race meetings they presently
organised were better arranged than many of the English meetings of
In 1637 we find the Duke of Newcastle appointed Governor to Prince
Charles—later to become King Charles II.—with special injunctions to
teach him to ride well.
The duke’s volume on equitation, published at Antwerp in 1658,
contains particulars of the prince’s progress in the art of
horsemanship, from which we may gather that Prince Charlie was an
exceptionally apt pupil—“a horseman by nature,” he has been termed.
So emphatically was this the case that in comparatively a few years he
professed himself able to ride any horse that anyone might choose to
bring to him, an assertion in which the duke supported him.
It was not long after this that the duke persuaded his royal pupil to
import from Spain a number of exceptionally fine sires, for, as he
said, Spanish stallions were quite unsurpassed, and in his opinion no
other sort of stallion ought to be admitted into this country.
The duke himself has been described as “an iron horseman,” but the
exact meaning of the phrase is not quite clear. He had, according to
some writers, an “iron” seat on a horse, while according to others he
had “iron” hands—the latter a questionable compliment.
Probably an “iron” nerve is what they really meant, for we know that
the Duke of Newcastle was both a finished and a fearless horseman, two
important qualifications that do not necessarily go together. We are
further told that in teaching the prince to ride he never spared him,
a statement easily believed when the duke’s hard and resolute nature,
added to his known determination to succeed at any cost in every task
he undertook to accomplish, are borne in mind. Ordered to train the
prince into a skilful horseman, he had at once set to work to do it to
the best of his ability.
Some say that as a boy Prince Charlie looked, when in the saddle, as
if he had been born there, and through life this natural seat upon a
horse stood him in good stead.
In addition to being a graceful rider, he had a very strong seat, so
that presumably he possessed the precious gift that to-day we call
An eighteenth-century writer, who appears to have had access to
private manuscripts or documents to do with King Charles II.’s private
life, avers that the king never, as we should express it, pulled
a horse about. Even tempered with his horses, he seldom or never
ill-treated them. They appeared to respond instinctively to his every
touch, to understand what he meant by the varying inflection in his
voice, and to divine, as if by magic, what their master wished them to
do. Also he never outrode a horse under any circumstances—never, as we
should say, rode a horse off its legs.
He preferred long stirrup leathers to short, but then in his day most
Also it is said of him that he never would look twice at a horse that
had bad quarters or indifferent withers.
Altogether it seems clear that, though he had a natural aptitude for
horsemanship, he must have been carefully and very thoroughly coached
in all the points of a horse, as well as in all that appertained to
the management, training and stabling of horses of every kind.
* * * * *
Horses had risen in price during Charles I.’s reign. In the reign of
Charles II. they rose higher still.
Thus about the year 1635—that is to say towards the middle of Charles
I.’s reign—300 and 400 pistoles was considered a moderate sum to pay
for a well-broken young horse.
“And the Marquis of Seralvo told me,” writes the Duke of Newcastle,
“that a Spanish horse called Il Bravo, and sent to the Arch-Duke
Leopold, his master, was held as much as a Mannor of a Thousand Crowns
a year, and that he hath known horses at 700, 800, and 1000 pistoles.”
Elsewhere we find indisputable evidence that between the beginning of
Charles I.’s and the end of Charles II.’s reign sums varying from 400
to 700 pistoles must often have been paid for saddle horses, while for
race horses the prices were considerably in excess of these sums.
It is amusing to read that the duke spoke in terms almost of contempt
of the Barb, for it shows that in one respect at least he must have
been prejudiced in much the same way that some of our modern owners
and trainers of thoroughbreds are prejudiced.
Yet he was firmly convinced that many of the horses imported from such
countries as Germany, Denmark and Holland were well suited for harness
work and for the plough.
In face of this, and in face also of his strong bias in favour of
Spanish stallions, it is surprising to hear that he deemed the English
horse to be “the best horse in the whole world for all uses whatever,
from the cart to the manage,” and that he even considered some of them
to be “as beautiful horses as can be anywhere, for they are bred out
of all the horses of all nations.”
Equally enthusiastic upon the subject of the English horse and its
merits, and upon its superiority over the horses of other nations, was
Marshal de Bassompierre, who has something to say about them in the
interesting memoirs of his embassy in England in 1626.
Thus after telling us that during his residence in this country he
received from some of the high officers of state, also from the king
himself, a present of fine horses, he goes on to mention incidentally
that it was at about this period that English thoroughbreds were
introduced into France for the first time.
This is interesting, inasmuch as certain writers of an earlier epoch
state definitely that English thoroughbreds were to be seen in parts
of France in their day.
Bassompierre, who had been in England in Elizabeth’s reign, is likely
to have known the true facts. In addition to being “addicted to
horses,” he was passionately fond of gambling, and the latter hobby is
said to have cost him in a single year some £500,000.
A family notorious early in the Stuart era for its devotion to the
Turf was the Fenwick family, so much so that several of its members
are described as having run “quite out of their fortunes” in their
futile attempts to transform two or three small fortunes into one
large one. The sensational story of Sir John Fenwick’s trial, followed
by his execution on Tower Hill in 1697, establishes a sort of landmark
in the history of the public executions of the seventeenth century.
During the first half of the same century horse fairs were organised
throughout England, and year by year they became events of greater
importance, many hundreds of men and women of all ranks travelling
from far-distant parts of the country in order to attend them. The
scenes of ribaldry by which many of these fairs were followed would
not be tolerated now. Among the more important of the fairs were those
held at Ripon, Melton, Pankridge and Northampton, but many of the
others were almost equally fashionable.
It was in the reign of Charles I. that Sir Edward Harwood presented
the famous petition, or memorial, in which he explained in forcible
language that “good and stout horses for the defence of the kingdom”
would soon be to all intents at a premium owing to the scant attention
that was then being paid to the breeding of such animals, adding that
he doubted whether, if some 2000 great horses should be wanted at
short notice, it would be possible to find so many in a fit condition
to do battle.
The French horses of the same stamp, he went on to say, were in
almost every way superior to ours, and so emphatic was he upon this
last point that he openly declared that if some 2000 of the best of
our great horses were to be set face to face in battle with an equal
number of the Frenchmen’s horses, our troops would to a certainty be
routed with heavy loss.
Seeing how earnestly Harwood spoke, the king, as we are told,
expressed sorrow and great amazement at what he heard, and at once
inquired the reason of the English horses’ alleged inferiority.
Then it was that Sir Edward made his point. With considerable
bluntness he told the king that the decline of the great horse was
due chiefly to the spread of racing and hunting, and to the growth,
consequent thereon, in the number of race meetings that were being
organised, and in the assemblage of persons who attended them.
For, as he justly pointed out, so long as the attention of the
principal body of the nobility and of the wealthy landed proprietors
was centred upon the breeding almost wholly of light and swift horses,
it was not possible to suppose that time would be found to attend also
to the breeding and rearing of the powerful animals that alone were
fit to carry men-at-arms.
Upon hearing this, Charles declared, no doubt in all good faith, that
he would take steps to revive the flagging interest in the production
of good war horses, but in the end nothing practical was done.
That the king himself took interest in the great horse we are led to
infer from the fact that upon the big seal he is shown riding astride
one. In Vandyck’s portrait of Oliver Cromwell we see Cromwell riding
rather a light-coloured great horse, a point worthy of note inasmuch
as we know that from about that time onward the term “great” horse was
almost always taken to mean a _black_ horse of this particular stamp.
[Illustration: OLIVER CROMWELL ON HORSEBACK
_After Van Dyck_]
Oliver Cromwell’s world-renowned Ironsides were not, of course,
mounted on great horses. On the contrary, though the Ironsides proved
themselves to be by far the most powerful cavalry seen in England down
to that time, their strength was due not to their weight, but to their
The dismay the Ironsides spread amongst the foe is said to have
astonished the cavaliers themselves as much as it surprised the enemy.
For it must be borne in mind that the Ironsides did not wear armour.
Instead they were protected merely by light buff coats, so that
naturally they were able to ride far lighter and consequently more
Probably it was the good work done by Cromwell’s cavalry that marked
the turning-point in the life of the old _régime_ by driving out of
the field not only the great horses that until then had been deemed
wholly indispensable, but also by sounding the death-knell of armour
that for two centuries had been growing steadily heavier and more
For many years, however, a body of the English military authorities
metaphorically clung doggedly to the clumsy horses to which they
had so long been accustomed, and to the clumsy armour as well,
declaring—as some of their successors do to-day—that the innovation
of a mobile force must soon prove unsatisfactory and ultimately be
Instead, exactly the reverse happened.
By slow degrees the armour was discarded, while the great horses, as
we are told, were relegated to the coach, the waggon and the plough.
Among those who adhered longest to the theory that England must
inevitably lose her prestige if the great horse were ousted from
her army for good and all was the Duke of Newcastle of that period.
Laughed at for his pains, and spoken of by the younger generation as
a man not able to see ahead of the times, he yet stood firmly by his
opinion almost to the last. As the years went on, and the younger
generation in their turn grew retrospective and pessimistic, no doubt
they too were laughed at by their sons, and thus history continues to
repeat itself even to the present day.
* * * * *
At about this period many of the “good” roads in England were in
reality little better than broad cart tracks, so that heavy horses
were largely in demand. In consequence of this the prices paid for a
good team of horses were in many instances out of all proportion to
the animals’ true worth. By this time, too, public stages were already
being started on the highroads, and the competition this gave rise to
soon sent up by leaps and bounds the value of great horses well broken
Of these stages the first was started probably about the year 1670,
and its weight when empty must have been enormous, every part being
made of solid timber bound with strips of iron. The “speed” at which
it travelled—so far as one can gather from the early descriptive
records of the progress of the pioneer stage—must have been
approximately three or four miles an hour, upon an average, or even
An excellent reproduction of the early type of the English great
horse is to be seen in Dublin in the famous statue of William III. on
horseback. The type of horse shown is probably the exact type that was
popular not merely in William III.’s reign, but during the greater
part of the century before he ascended the throne.
True, in that statue the king is garbed like an ancient Roman, the
reason being—I take the following statement from several Irish
jarveys, and disclaim all responsibility for its alleged accuracy—that
King William adored a foreigner and tried always to look like one!
It was, indeed, a jarvey who remarked as we drove past: “Sure, and
it is in hunting kit he should be, and on one of Pat Mecreedy’s
hundred-guinea leppers.” He appeared to be convulsed with mirth at
the bare thought that the hero of the Boyne should have been depicted
mounted upon a cart horse.
Some even among our historians, however, have averred that this horse
is wrongly proportioned. Personally I incline to the belief that the
animal is in every detail true to life, and not many years ago the
late Viscount Powerscourt declared that he himself had seen used in
parts of Holland horses that in every respect resembled this animal of
King William’s statue.
Is it not likely, therefore, that William III. may have been in the
habit of riding a Dutch horse, and that the sculptor copied this horse
Certainly if the pictures of the period are to be trusted for
accuracy, soon after the overthrow of James II. by William of Orange
there were horses in plenty of almost exactly this type to be seen
in England. Also the harness that was worn by many of the Dutch
horses shown in the pictures resembled the harness that was in use
among followers of William III., more especially the parts we mean to
indicate when we speak of a horse’s trappings.
Even the bridles greatly resembled one another in some instances.
* * * * *
Bearing directly upon the story of the horse in history are the
descriptions that have been handed down to us of the almost frantic
opposition that met the introduction of the stage coach soon after
the middle of the seventeenth century.
In some respects these descriptions recall vividly to mind the rabid
antagonism some two centuries later to the introduction of the steam
engine, not to speak of the objections that are still raised by a
proportion of the community to the general adoption of automobilism.
Prior to the introduction of the stage coach into England a
four-wheeled carriage with a long, low body had been employed to
convey the general public from one part of the country to another, and
when the stage coach first arrived many of our wiseacres were quick
to prophesy that the death-knell of the nation’s greatness had in
consequence been sounded!
Perhaps one of the stoutest of the opponents of reform in this
respect was a certain Mr Cressett, of Charterhouse, who in the year
1662 openly and in very straightforward language affirmed that the
adoption of the stage coach must “entirely ruin the country,” and who
in that year wrote a vigorous tract, in which he explained entirely
to his satisfaction—also, apparently, to the satisfaction of his
partisans—that the amount of harm the introduction of road coaching
must inevitably cause to the community at large would be enormous.
His remarks, too voluminous to reprint _in extenso_, contain in one
place the observation that “by this rapid mode of travelling”—at the
period in which he wrote it took approximately three days to get from
London to Dover, even in fine weather—“gentlemen will come to London
upon the slightest pretext, which but for these abominable coaches
they would not do but upon urgent necessity.”
Nor would the impending evil, in his opinion, end there, for, lashing
himself gradually into a fury, he went on to maintain that “the
gentlemen’s wives” would come too, and that no sooner would they find
themselves in London than they would “get fine clothes, go to plays
and treats, and by these means get such a habit of idleness and love
for pleasure that they would be uneasy ever after.”
Poor Mr Cressett!
Surely he must have been an ancestor, or at the least some early
relative, of the notorious Mr Wightman who, just before the first
London and Brighton railway was laid down, wrote a book in which he
“proved” beyond refutation that no locomotive steam engine could by
any possibility be propelled at a speed greater than about half the
speed of the fastest of the coaches then on the road!
We smile indulgently at all this now, yet, when all is said, have we
changed so very greatly since those dark and peculiar ages—since the
epoch that we now refer to so complacently as “the good old times”?
The narratives of the remarkable experiences of many of the travellers
in those early coaches would make up almost enough letterpress to
fill a volume. For from the very outset the public stages became the
unlawful prey of half the rascals with which a vast tract of the whole
of England at that time teemed. Coaches were plundered almost daily,
and while sometimes blood was spilt intentionally, often this happened
rather by accident.
Charles II., who used his influence to help on the development of
the stage coach, appears at times to have become frankly impatient
with the ultra-conservatism of the bulk of his nobility and of the
aristocracy who strove hard to check the progress of the new form of
Whatever Charles’s shortcomings may have been—and we know that he
had many—he had enough of _nous_ to be able to foresee the enormous
advantages that would be derived from the general adoption of the
Consequently he encouraged the importation of stallions and the
breeding of animals of the stamp best adapted for coach work.
Himself a finished whip, most likely, he desired that all his nobles
should emulate his example by learning to drive well, though driving
in those days was a form of amusement comparatively seldom indulged
in by the well-to-do, who, as we are told, preferred being driven by
Before Prince Charles’s proclamation, however, the ten years of the
Commonwealth’s sway had to intervene, during which time the horse’s
progress in this country suffered a set-back from the effects of which
it did not immediately recover.
The beginning of the horse’s decline in public favour may be said to
have dated from 4th January 1651, on which day a report was drawn
up—to be soon afterwards presented to Parliament—demanding that
horse races, hunting, hawking matches and football playing be at
once suppressed, the plea in favour of this radical reform being
that frequently political meetings were convened by enemies of the
Commonwealth under the veil of race meetings and similar social