Horse-racing known to the Saxons--Races in Smithfield, and why--Races, at what Seasons practised--The Chester Races--Stamford Races--Value of Running-horses--Highly prized by the Poets, etc.--Horse-racing commended as a liberal Pastime--Charles II. and other monarchs encouragers of Horse-racing--Races on Coleshill-heath--Corporation Races and later.
HORSE-RACING KNOWN TO THE SAXONS.--It was requisite in former times for a man of fashion to understand the nature and properties of horses, and to ride well; or, using the words of an old romance writer, "to runne horses and to approve them." 1 In proportion to the establishment of this maxim, swift running-horses of course rose into estimation; and we know that in the ninth century they were considered as presents well worthy the acceptance of kings and princes.
When Hugh, the head of the house of the Capets, afterwards monarchs of France, solicited the hand of Edelswitha, the sister of Athelstan, he sent to that prince, among other valuable presents, several running-horses, 2 with their saddles and their bridles, the latter being embellished with bits of yellow gold. It is hence concluded, and indeed with much appearance of truth, that horse-racing was known and practised by the Anglo-Saxons, but most probably confined to persons of rank and opulence, and practised only for amusement sake.
RACES IN SMITHFIELD.--The first indication of a sport of this kind occurs in the description of London, written by Fitzstephen, who lived in the reign of Henry II. He tells us, that horses were usually exposed for sale in West Smithfield; and, in order to prove the excellency of the most valuable hackneys and charging steeds, they were matched against each other; his words are to this effect, 3 "When a race is to be run by this sort of horses, and perhaps by others, which also in their kind are strong and fleet, a shout is immediately raised, and the common horses are ordered to withdraw out of the way. Three jockeys, or sometimes only two, as the match is made, prepare themselves for the contest; such as being used to ride know how to manage their horses with judgment: the grand point is, to prevent a competitor from getting before them. The horses, on their part, are not without emulation: they tremble and are impatient, and are continually in motion: at last the signal once given, they strike, devour the course, hurrying along with unremitting velocity. The jockeys, inspired with the thoughts of applause and the hopes of victory,
clap spurs to their willing horses, brandish their whips, and cheer them with their cries."
HORSE-RACING SEASONS.--In the middle ages there were certain seasons of the year when the nobility indulged themselves in running their horses and especially in the Easter and Whitsuntide holidays. In the old metrical romance of "Sir Bevis of Southampton," 1 it is said,
Commenius in his vocabulary, entitled "Orbis Sensuallum Pictus," published towards the conclusion of the sixteenth century, indeed says, "At this day, tilting, or the quintain is used, where a ring is struck with a truncheon, instead of horse-races, which," adds he, "are grown out of use."
A writer of the seventeenth century 2 tells us, that horse-racing, which had formerly been practised at Eastertide, "was then put down, as being contrary to the holiness of the season"; but for this prohibition I have no further authority."
CHESTER RACES.--It is certain, that horse-races were held upon various holidays, at different parts of the kingdom, and in preference to other pastimes. "It had been customary," says a Chester antiquary, 3 "time out of mind, upon Shrove Tuesday, for the company of saddlers belonging to the city of Chester, to present to the drapers a wooden ball, embellished with flowers, and placed upon the point of a lance; this ceremony was performed in the presence of the mayor, at the cross in the 'Rodhee,' or Roody, an open place near the city; but this year" (1540), continues he, "the ball was changed into a bell of silver, valued at three shillings and sixpence, or more, to be given to him who shall run the best, and the farthest on horseback, before them upon the same day." 4 These bells were afterwards denominated Saint George's bells; and we are told that in the last year of James I. John Brereton, inn-keeper, mayor of Chester, first caused the horses entered for this race, then called Saint George's race, to start from the point, beyond the new tower: and appointed them to run five times round the Roody: "and he," says my author, 5 "who won the last course or trayne, received the bell, of a good value, of eight or ten pounds, or thereabout, and to have it forever; which moneyes were collected of the citizens, to a sum for that purpose." 6 By the author's having added, that the winner at this race was to have the bell, and have it for ever, is implied, that it had formerly been
used as a temporary mark of honour, by the successful horseman, and afterwards returned to the corporation; this alteration was made April 23, A.D. 1624.
Here we see the commencement of a regular horse-race, but whether the courses were in immediate succession, or at different intervals, is not perfectly clear; we find not, however, the least indication of distance posts, weighing the riders, loading them with weights, and many other niceties that are observed in the present day. The Chester races were instituted merely for amusement, but now such prodigious sums are usually dependent upon the event of a horse-race, that these apparently trivial matters, are become indispensably necessary. Forty-six years afterwards, 1 according to the same writer, the sheriffs of Chester "would have no calves-head feast, but put the charge of it into a piece of plate, to be run for on that day, Shrove Tuesday; and the high-sheriff borrowed a Barbary horse of sir Thomas Middleton, which won him the plate; and being master of the race, he would not suffer the horses of master Massey, of Puddington, and of sir Philip Egerton, of Oulton, to run, because they came the day after the time prefixed for the horses to be brought, and kept in the city; which thing caused all the gentry to relinquish our races ever since."
* Two small silver racing bells, belonging to the corporation of Carlisle, of globular form, were exhibited before the Royal Archæological Institute in 1879. The largest, which is 2¼ inches in diameter, is gilt, and thus inscribed--"The sweftes hors thes bel to tak for mi lade Daker sake." The other bears date 1599, with initials H. B. M. C., that is, Henry Baines, Mayor of Carlisle. 2
STAMFORD RACES.--Races something similar to those above mentioned, are described by Butcher, 3 as practised in the vicinity of the town of Stamford, in Lincolnshire. "A concourse," says he, "of noblemen and gentlemen meet together, in mirth, peace, and amity, for the exercise of their swift running-horses, every Thursday in March. The prize they run for is a silver and gilt cup, with a cover, to the value of seven or eight pounds, provided by the care of the alderman for the time being; but the money is raised out of the interest of a stock formerly made up by the nobility and gentry, which are neighbours, and well-wishers to the town."
VALUE OF RUNNING-HORSES.--Running-horses are frequently mentioned in the registers of the royal expenditures. It is notorious, that king John was so fond of swift horses and dogs for the chase, that he received many of his fines in the one or the other; but at the same time it does not appear that he used the horses for any purposes of pleasure, beyond the pursuits of hunting, hawking, and such like sports of the field.
In the reign of Edward III. the running-horses purchased for the king's service, were generally estimated at twenty marks, or thirteen pounds, six shillings, and eightpence each; but some few of them were prized as high as
twenty-five marks. 1 I met with an entry, dated the ninth year of this king's reign, which states, that the king of Navarre sent him as a present two running-horses, which I presume were very valuable, because he gave the person who brought them no less than one hundred shillings for his reward. 2
RUNNING-HORSES OF THE HEROES OF ROMANCE.--If we appeal to the poets, we shall find, that swift running-horses were greatly esteemed by the heroes who figure in their romances; and rated at prodigious prices; for instance, in an ancient poem, 3 which celebrates the warlike actions of Richard I., it is said, that in the camp of the emperor, as he is called, of Cyprus,
[paragraph continues] And though the rhymist may be thought to have claimed the poetical licence for exaggeration, respecting the value of these two famous steeds, the statement plainly indicates that in his time there were horses very highly prized on account of their swiftness. We do not find indeed, that they were kept for the purpose of racing only, as horses are in the present day; but rather, as I before observed, for hunting and other purposes of a similar nature; and also to be used by heralds and messengers in cases of urgency.
Race-horses were prized on account of their breed, in the time of Elizabeth, as appears from the following observations in one of Bishop Hall's Satires.
HORSE-RACING, A LIBERAL PASTIME.--TWO centuries back horse-racing was considered as a liberal pastime, practised for pleasure rather that profit, without the least idea of reducing it to a system of gambling. It is ranked with hunting and hawking, and opposed to dice and card playing by an old Scotch poet, who laments that the latter had in great measure superseded the former. 6 One of the puritanical writers 7 in the reign of Elizabeth, though he is very severe against cards, dice, vain plays, interludes, and other idle pastimes, allows
of horse-racing as "yielding good exercise," which he certainly would not have done, had it been in the least degree obnoxious to the censure which at present it so justly claims.
Burton, 1 who wrote at the decline of the seventeenth century, says sarcastically, "Horse-races are desports of great men, and good in themselves, though many gentlemen by such means gallop quite out of their fortunes"; which may be considered as a plain indication, that they had begun to be productive of mischief at the time he wrote: and fifty years afterwards, they were the occasion of a new and destructive species of gambling. The following lines are from a ballad in D’Urfey's collection of songs: it is called "New Market," which place was then famous for the exhibition of horse-races.
ROYAL PATRONS OF HORSE-RACING--RACES ON COLESHILL HEATH, &C.--From what has been said, it seems clear enough, that this pastime was originally practised in England for the sake of the exercise, or by way of emulation, and, generally speaking, the owners of the horses were the riders. These contests, however, attracted the notice of the populace, and drew great crowds of people together to behold them; which induced the inhabitants of many towns and cities to affix certain times for the performance of such sports, and prizes were appointed as rewards for the successful candidates. The prize was usually a silver cup or some other piece of plate, about eight or ten pounds value.
In the reign of James I. public races (as distinguished from private matches between gentlemen) were established in many parts of the kingdom, such as Gathorty, Yorkshire; Croydon, Surrey, and on Enfield Chase. It is said that the discipline and modes of preparing the horses upon such occasions, were much the same as are practised in the present day. The races were then called bell courses, because, as we have seen above, the prize was a silver bell.
At the latter end of the reign of Charles I. races were held in Hyde Park, and at Newmarket. After the Restoration, horse-racing was revived and much encouraged by Charles II. who frequently honoured this pastime with his presence; and, for his own amusement, when he resided at Windsor, appointed races to be made in Datchet mead. At Newmarket, where it is said he entered horses and run them in his name, he established a house for his better accommodation;
and he also occasionally visited other places where horse-races were instituted. I met with the following doggerel verses in a metrical Itinerary, written at the close of the seventeenth century. The author, 1 for he hardly deserves the name of poet, speaking of Burford Downs, makes these remarks:
At this time it seems, that the bells were converted into cups, or bowls, or some other pieces of plate, which were usually valued at one hundred guineas each; and upon these trophies of victory the exploits and pedigree of the successful horses were most commonly engraved. William III. was also a patroniser of this pastime, and established an academy for riding, and his queen not only continued the bounty of her predecessors, but added several plates to the former donations.
* Queen Anne not only continued this practice, but kept a racing stud and ran horses in her own name. At York, in 1712 the Queen's grey gelding, Pepper, ran for the Royal Gold Cup, value £100; and Mustard, described as a nutmeg-grey horse, another of the Queen's stud, ran for the same stake in the following year. On Friday, July 30th, 1714, the Queen's bay horse Star won a plate of £40 on the York course. On the following Monday, during a race for a gold cup with a sweepstake of sixteen guineas, an express arrived with the news of her majesty's death. The nobility and gentry left the course and attended the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor of York, who proclaimed the accession of George I. 2 Towards the close of his reign George I. discontinued the plates and gave in lieu one hundred guineas.
In one of the Spectators, we meet with the following advertisement, extracted, as we are told, from a paper called the Post Boy: 3 "On the ninth of October next will be run for on Coleshill Heath, in Warwickshire, a plate of six guineas value, three heats, by any horse, mare, or gelding, that hath not won above the value of five pounds: the winning horse to be sold for ten pounds, to carry ten stone weight if fourteen hands high: if above, or under, to carry or be allowed weight for inches, and to be entered on Friday the fifth, at the Swan, in Coleshill, by six in the evening. Also a plate of less value, to be run for by asses"; which, though by no means so noble a sport as the other, was, I doubt not, productive of the most mirth.
* CORPORATION PLATES.--It was the custom of several of our more important corporations to support horse-racing by presenting money or money's worth. Horse-racing on Harleston Heath, near Northampton, was established early in the seventeenth century. In 1632 the corporation of Northampton covenanted to make an annual gift of a silver-gilt covered cup of the value of £16, 13s. 4d. The Chamberlain's accounts for the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries always contain an entry for this payment, generally characterised as "the horse-race plate," and sometimes as "the Harleston race cup." In the reign, however, of George II., the Duke of Marlborough made good his claim to Harleston Heath against the Corporation, and those races ceased. At certain times the Northampton corporation also supported the town races held on their common fields. The earliest entry to this effect is curiously enough in the time of the Commonwealth. In 1658, "at the desire of the Country Gentlemen," two plates were provided, one of the value of £30 and the other of £14. 1
* In 1727 John Chency printed "an historical list of all the horse-matches run, and all Plates and Prizes run for in England and Wales (of the value of Ten Pounds or upwards.)" This list shows that there were no fewer than one hundred and twelve cities and towns in England and five in Wales where horse-races were held. To this work succeeded Weatherby's well-known "Racing Calendar."
32:1 Knight of the Swan, Garrick's Collect. K. vol. x.
32:2 Equos cursores. Malmsb. de Gest. Reg. Angl. lib. ii. cap. 6.
32:3 I have followed the translation published by Mr White, of Fleet-street, A.D. 1772. See Stow's Survey of London, republished with additions by Strype.
33:1 Syr Bevys of Hampton, black letter, without date, printed by Wm. Copland. Garrick's Collect. K. vol. ix.
33:2 Bourne Antiq. Vulgares, chap. xxiv.
33:3 Probably the elder Randel Holme of Chester, one of the city heralds. MS. Harl. 2150. fol. 235.
33:4 That is Shrove Tuesday.
33:5 Probably the younger Randel Holme.
33:6 MS. Harl. 2125.
34:1 A.D. 1665. and 5 Charles II.
34:2 The Archæological Journal, xxxvi. 383, where these bells are figured.
34:3 In his Survey of the Town of Stamford, first printed A.D. 1646, chap. 10.
35:1 MS. Cot. Nero, C. viii. fol. 219.
35:3 MS. Harl. 4690, written early in the fourteenth century.
35:4 A French word, signifying a large powerful horse.
35:5 Lib. iv. f. 3. Edit. 1599.
35:6 Poem of Covetice, quoted by Warton. Hist. English Poetry, vol. ii. p. 316.
35:7 John Northbrooke.
36:1 Anatomy of Melancholy, part ii. sec. 2, chap. 4, edit. 1660.
36:2 Pills to purge Melancholy, fourth edit. 1719, vol. ii. p. 53.
37:1 Probably Matthew Thomas Baskervile, whose name appears at the end; it was written about the year 1690. MS. Harl. 4716.
37:2 Badminton Library, Racing, p. 24.
37:3 Dated Sept. 11, A.D. 1711. Spectator, vol. iii. No. 173.
38:1 Dr Cox's Records of the Borough of Northampton, ii. 539-541.