The horseshoes of Oakham Castle

March 5, 2010

by Matias Tugores


Queen Elizabeth II's offering to Oakham Manor is from one of her racehorses.

For centuries, kings and queens, princes and princesses, and the peers of the realm readily paid out a toll to the lord of Oakham Manor when they travelled to, or just passed through the market-town in Rutland county.

The origin of this custom requiring them to remit on their first visit a shoe from their horse or to compound for it in money remains unknown to this day.

During the time of Henry III and Edward I - ie, throughout the 13th century - the bailiffs of Oakham were known to have levied a toll or fine on the passage of carriages and on the buying and selling of horses. The horseshoe "penalty" seems to have been a natural development from this usage.

Thus, throughout the ages and until the present time as the tradition is still carried on, horseshoes - real ones at first, then more and more sophisticated and far larger imitations of them - were handed over to the lord of the manor. They ultimately found their way on the walls of its Great Hall, one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in England, where they are displayed today.

There, in this lofty hall divided into a nave and aisles by two decades, each with three massive stone columns bearing capitals, are hung 240 horseshoes whose sizes vary from that of a breakfast table to that of a ... 'narrow iron plate shoeing a horse'!

It was only towards the end of the 16th century that it became the usual practice to hand over or to commission a specially made horseshoe bearing the donor's name and rank and the date it was given. Some of these horseshoes, which were often forged by the local blacksmith, were at first not much larger than an ordinary shoe, but broad enough to carry an inscription, and had their calks properly formed at the heel, before growing in size, though none of them was as impressive as the one believed to have been gifted by Edward IV in 1470.

The largest ones could be made of two lengths of iron forged together and their donors were identified by their arms and emblems, and on rarer occasions by their motto which were presumed to have been painted on wooden cartouches no longer extant.

The earliest surviving inscriptions, dating from the late 17th century, are parched. Some of these horseshoes, which the diarist John Evelyn, who visited Oakham in 1654, described as "gilded" - a feature some of the early examples now retain- were letters or symbols stamped on the calks, which may have been the maker's or bailiff's initial or mark.

At a later date, to give them more rigidity, the horseshoes were made of thin iron strips with their edges and feet rolled over a wire or formed of shaped rods. The inscriptions they bore were painted on a gilt or yellow background.

From the late 19th century, at a time when cast iron was all the rage in the field of decorative work, the horseshoes, too, yielded to the prevailing fashion. One of the advantages of cast iron was that the lettering and coronet could be formed in the pattern of an integral and permanent part of the design.

This craze did not last long, however, and from the mid-20th century, most horseshoes were back in the smiths' hands, who hand-forged them in the style of the cast iron ones (with the exception that the lettering on them was painted and that each part of the coronet was wrought separately and then riveted and forged into place).

The horseshoes of Oakham Castle represent a complete cross-section of the peerage, from royalty and the most ancient and distinguished honours to short-lived and newly created ones.

Politicians, military and Church men, lawyers, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, industrialists, landowners ... bestowed with their titles in recognition of the services to Crown and country or by virtue of the inherited position they held in society, all brought their stone to the perpetuating of this tradition.

The kings and queens, ruling monarchs or heirs to the throne, who paid with a good grace their tribute during their visit to Oakham, were many.

The first one, in the 15th century, was Edward IV, and it is almost certain that the huge and elaborately wrought horseshoe hanging on the west wall of the hall is the one which was put up at his command. A text of 1521 described it as "being nigh a breath a yard" and bearing "the arms of England". It was only in 1980 when, in preparation for the castle's 800th anniversary, the horseshoes were taken down for conservation and restoration, that it was realised how this highly corroded plate had been meticulously wrought and decorated. This horseshoe, which was not handed over in acknowledgement of a service due to the Lord of the Manor but as a symbol or reminder of the King's authority, carried a row of neatly painted formal roses outlined in black on a red background. Two quarters of the shield which crowns it were painted in the same colours and though no device can now be seen, one can reasonably surmise that the royal arms were originally depicted on it.

In addition to Edward IV, two reigning monarchs are known to have donated horseshoes: George VI in 1944, when he inspected the Airborne Regiment in Oakham (23 years earlier, as Duke of York, he had already complied with the custom, making him the only one to have reiterated this graceful gesture), and Elizabeth II, in 1967. Several heirs to the Crown who where to accede to the Throne did, too, present horseshoes: the Prince Regent in 1814 (later George IV), Princess Victoria in 1835, and the Princes of Wales in 1895 and 1921 (later Edward VII and VIII).

As a general rule, they bear nothing more than the donor's name and the date in which they were handed over, often inscribed on a gilded background.

Their coronet, often inlaid with imitation gems, is decked alternately with fleurs de lys and cross pattee, when it corresponds to the horseshoe of a ruling monarch. Those of the other members of the royal family vary according to their position: the heir apparent, for example, will bear on his coronet the three feathers which have come to be associated with the Prince of Wales. A duke's coronet will flaunt five strawberry leaves, a viscount's seven silver balls on rays, and the marquis' three strawberry leaves and two silver balls.

A handful of horseshoes have singled themselves out - either because of the material they were made of - bronze for the one donated in 1814 by the Prince Regent - later George IV), wood (in which was cut the horseshoe handed over by the earl of Onslow in 1897), and aircraft metal (in which was fashioned the tribute presented by Princess Margaret, in 1973) - or through their origin and background, like the genuine one, a racing plate from one of her horses given by Queen Elizabeth II, in 1967, the one "borrowed" to Clinker, Lord Willoughby's favourite horse, and the military trophy taken from an Austrian pony captured in Italy, in 1918, by the 10th earl of Cavan.

More than five centuries span the mammoth horseshoe believed to be that of Edward IV, and those given by HRH the Princess Royal in 1999, HRH the Prince of Wales in 2003, and HRH Princess Alexandra in 2005, the latest additions to a long list.

The love of the British for the Royalty, their fancy for horses and tradition, is the best promise of a still long future for this anachronistic custom.