Horses, historians, and early modern England

Lord Portmore watching racehorses at exercise on Newmarket Heath, by John Wootton (c.-1753).
Lord Portmore watching racehorses at exercise on Newmarket Heath, by John Wootton (c.-1753).

Horses and the Aristocratic Lifestyle in Early Modern England: William Cavendish, First Earl of Devonshire (1551-1626), and his Horses, by Peter Edwards. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2018. xv + 256 pages. (RRP £75, via Amazon UK)

Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century, by Mike Huggins. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2018. x + 316 pages. (RRP $US80, via Amazon)

The Boydell Press has published two new books in British history that resemble and complement one another: Peter Edwards, Horses and the Aristocratic Lifestyle in Early Modern England (2018), and Mike Huggins, Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century (2018). The similarity begins with authorship: both Edwards and Huggins are accomplished academic historians — professors emeriti at British universities (Roehampton and Cumbria, respectively) with decades of experience in primary research and scholarly writing and with the high levels of knowledge and skill that their many books would suggest.¹ Each has irreproachable expertise in his field.

The two books also draw on similar sources and employ similar methods and formats. Each book makes extensive use of primary archival material and secondary scholarly research (Edwards supplements his bibliography with a discussion of sources, while Huggins lets his speak for itself). Each book places its subject in a wide, deep, and well-documented context, and each explores its subject in exhaustive — and often exhausting — detail (they bristle with footnotes). Each book builds its thesis deliberately and persuasively, and each provides its chapters with succinct “conclusions” and adds an overall summary conclusion. Each book, unfortunately, also unfolds its thesis in unappealing academic prose (Edwards is overly fond of minutia, and Huggins of cultural studies jargon).

Henry, Duke of Cumberland, by David Morier (1765).

The complementarity of these two books lies in their contents, specifically their coverage of overlapping but distinct periods and topics. Edwards spans the Early Modern period, or, roughly, 1500 to 1750 or 1800 (scholars from different disciplines, using different guideposts, tend to set different boundaries), and focuses on equines in relationship to “lifestyle.” Huggins treats the Long Eighteenth Century, or, 1660 to 1815 (scholars tend to agree on “the restoration of Charles II to the end of the Napoleonic wars” as the boundaries), and focuses on equine racing in relationship to “society.” Professors of “social” and “cultural” history, respectively, Edwards emphasizes the importance of equines in general to the aristocracy in particular, Huggins, the role of equine racing in particular to society in general.

Author of a now standard study, Horse and Man in Early Modern England (2007), Edwards initially had planned Horses and the Aristocratic Lifestyle, “to serve as a case study of the relationship between an aristocrat and his horses, one that would be narrowly focused on equine pursuits.” That aristocrat, William Cavendish, First Earl of Devonshire (1551-1526), not only enjoyed great wealth and influence, holding a vast estate, but also created and maintained an important stud that bred high-quality saddle horses for a market of peers.² Though Edwards, in the end, retained Cavendish as his exemplar, he broadened his focus and produced a book in two equal parts, “the first half dealing with equine themes and the second one covering lifestyle subjects,” a “coupling” that he aptly describes as “symbiotic.”

For the aristocracy, horses held both an iconic and functional value that Edwards explores in ten chapters (five in each half) packed with information and supplemented with 6 plates, 7 graphs, and 21 tables. Though the first half of the book speaks more directly to readers interested in horses rather than social history, the second part covers a wide range of topics that include horses, such as the critical roles of horses in negotiating the distances and terrains involved in social life in the provinces; in conveying large entourages and “huge amounts of luggage” from the provinces to the capital; and in pursuing leisure activities while in the capital, such as hunting, racing, and horsemanship. As Edwards notes, “aristocrats’ most archetypical sports,” whether country or city, “were equine-based.”

Though the book’s first half ostensibly treats “equine themes,” only three chapters focus on horses: the third on breeding and “rearing” them, fourth on buying and selling them, and fifth on caring for them and maintaining their environments. Based largely on “disbursement books” and estate surveys and maps, the first two chapters tell a fascinating story about the inheritance, management, and expansion of estates that were, in essence, complex agricultural businesses, while the latter three tell the equally fascinating story about running what was, in fact, a complex equine business. As Edwards points out, this was “a risky business” that entailed breeding “exactly the right product for a highly discerning market.” Though Edwards cannot ascertain Cavendish’s success, he can show that “few of his peers operated on the scale that he did with such valuable horses.”³

The match between Driver and Aaron at Maidenhead, by Richard Roper (1754).
The match between Driver and Aaron at Maidenhead, by Richard Roper (1754).

Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century, Huggins’s fourth book on horse racing in England, argues that racing “was by far the best-organized, best-supported, most high-status, best-publicized and distinctive … sporting activity” in a century “when reliance on horses was at its peak.” With the goal of extending the historical scope of scholarship that has tended to focus on the past two centuries and, as a result, has “overlooked and marginalized” racing in the early modern period, Huggins explores “earlier racing as a ‘proto-modern’ sport … with some features of the modern,” particularly those of professionalism and commercialism. In the process, he offers (and touts) many “new insights” and corrects some “conventional beliefs.”

William Cavendish,1st Earl of Devonshire. (British School, 1576).Like Edwards, Huggins structures his book in two parts, the first a study of “the relationship between horse racing and wider British society,” and the second “a detailed exploration of racing’s inner subcultural world” (11 illustrations and 10 tables accompany the text). While equestrian readers might prefer the four chapters in the second part, the whole book offers provocative material that, given the topic, often includes the unsavory or the outré. Race weeks, for example, invariably attracted prostitutes, pickpockets, and politicians; jockeys commonly “crossed and jostled” one another and often ran one another either outside of stout boundary posts or, more dangerously, into them; and, “with no barriers to the running track, people, dogs and horses [the former frequently drunk] all intruded onto it.”

Huggins is particularly insightful on racehorse breeding and ownership. Observing that “the Civil War’s damage to British breeding stock created a perceived need to ‘reinvigorate’ British military and riding horses,” for example, he shows how 18th-century foundational stallions and mares met a functional need while adding symbolic value. He connects (as have others) the aristocracy’s parallel obsessions with both equine and human bloodlines: “belief in the superior breeding of their horses became linked to belief in their own superior breeding.” As a result, Huggins argues, the thoroughbred became “a powerful cultural icon within the British imagination,” and the self-styled “British creation” of the thoroughbred “helped to sustain the wider belief in British superiority through the war with France and the loss of America.”

Written by academic historians for academic historians, these two books focus on social and cultural history and some roles of the horse in it, rather than on the horse and the history, for example, of its training or riding. As I hope to have shown, though, they offer much of interest to equine enthusiasts, whether “professional” historians or not.


[1] Edwards’s books include, among others, The Horse Trade of Tudor and Stuart England (1988), Horse and Man in Early Modern England (2007), and, as editor, The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World (2012). Huggins’s include Kings of the Moor: Yorkshire Racehorse Trainers 1760-1900 (1991), Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914 (2000), and Horse Racing and the British 1919-1945 (2003).

[2] This William Cavendish is not the great horseman, William Cavendish, First Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676), but the latter’s uncle. Newcastle was the author of La méthode nouvelle et Invention extraordinaire de dresser les chevaux (1658), translated as A General System of Horsemanship (1743).

[3] “Unfortunately,” Edwards notes, “the absence of receipt ledgers detailing Cavendish’s income means that it is impossible to discern whether his stud made money or not.” Edwards must base his inferences about the success of Cavendish’s stud on disbursements only, since he has no record of receipts.

Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

One thought on “Horses, historians, and early modern England

  • January 4, 2019 at 6:49 am

    I love Mike Huggins’ work. I just reviewed this book for a history journal and highly recommend it also!


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