Sunday, October 7, 2012

Noblewomen and Horseback Riding in Regency England By Christy English

Ladies rode in Regency England, wearing long riding habits, perched on their mounts sidesaddle. To my sedentary self, this seems brave in the extreme, or perhaps foolhardy, though I know even as I write that it is my modern mind that balks, not to mention my lack of skill on a horse. 

 Modern Woman Jumping Sidesaddle

I am used to writing about medieval women, who sometimes journeyed pillion on the back of a man’s horse, or traveled in a litter. But when a medieval woman rode on horseback, as Eleanor of Aquitaine traveled to Byzantium, she often rode astride.

Not so the Regency lady. She not only rode sidesaddle, but wore an elaborate gown.

 Regency Style Riding Habit, Front

 Regency Style Riding Habit, Back

In my romantic, overactive imagination, I have often thought of ladies vaulting on horseback in these long gowns over streams and fences, the veils of their hats flying behind them, but from the research I’ve done on the subject, this simply was not the case. Not only was it considered unladylike to vault over streams in Regency England, it was also death defying. If a woman’s horse fell with her on it, she would be more likely to be caught in her saddle by her skirts than thrown free of her horse. Neither option sounds appealing to me, but I suppose a huge horse falling on you would make a quick and nasty ending to any outing.

Sidesaddle Circa 1799

In my Regency novel, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, Caroline Montague is chastised repeatedly for riding astride before she is married. I took a bit of literary license here, because a woman would never have been allowed to ride astride during this time period, no matter how indulgent her father. But from all I gather, she was far safer in breeches and riding astride. The joys of fiction are immense, as long as we remember how things were truly done as we pay homage to the past.

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  1. A couple of curiosities--although women's clothes were made by female modistes or milliners at the time, during the Georgian era, riding habits were always cut and made by a tailor, even the women's coats and skirts. It was to do with the cutting of the clothes--tailors were renowned for their abilities to cut English wool well, and hence they made the riding clothes.

    Also, the concept we have of riders flying over hedges and streams (probably gained from Victorian or Edwardian hunting prints) isn't applicable to really men or women during the earlier period. The saddles--side or otherwise--were not yet constructed to make that kind of jumping sane. The changes in saddle technology, particularly having to do with the stirrups, (which make all the jumping if not safe, then possible) don't occur until at least the 1830s.

    For example, it's surprising when reading memoirs of cavalry officers of the Napoleonic era, how many of them couldn't or wouldn't jump their horses...

    1. That late on stirrups, huh? I knew earlier there were none (such as knights going on crusade) but I had thought stirrups came before the 1830's. Who invented stirrups? Do you know? He or she should be high in heaven for that. :D

    2. The Chinese, so they say, though they probably pinched the idea elsewhere. Stirrups made the horse a more stable weapons platform. That was it.

      Well - your servant would help you aboard ;)

  2. Interesting. When I was researching The Blood Upon the Rose (set in Ireland, 1919) I read lots of old copies of The Times, and this subject, surprisingly, was a very hot topic in the letters pages that year. Some ladies, it seems, were boldly insisting on riding astride, rather than side-saddle, and this met with widespread concern on - guess what? - medical grounds! Several correspondents warned that ladies might damage their wombs and be unable to bear children. Amazing, but true. I wonder what these old gents would say if they had witnessed British three time Olympic medallist Mary King successfully riding round Badminton cross-country course when several months pregnant? (There was some frowning at that, too)

    As an amateur rider myself, I would suggest from personal experience (without being too indelicate) that the gender more likely to incur acute medical discomfort from accidents riding astride, would be male. Ouch.

    1. Close fitting Y-fronts work quite well ;)

  3. MM and Tim, thank you so much for adding your comments... I enjoy your comments almost as much as your posts. As much as I love the idea of leaping over hedges and streams, it makes sense that they waited until the saddles made such riding possible. Tim, I am fascinated by your medical input here...damaging their wombs indeed :)

  4. Very nice post. I loved the pictures of the saddle and costume. I agree, one can take a license if one knows the rules. I have an astride riding heroine, but she's careful to make sure know one knows.

  5. An interesting post, and interesting to see how many of you are keen to bend this particular historical fact! I am curious as to whether all members of society thought women should ride side-saddle. I ask because while researching childbirth I found that although the gentry and wealthy inisted on the practise of 'lying-in, the lower orders were much more pragmatic and were healthier for it. Perhaps in the case of horse riding it simply did not apply as the lower orders did not ride what was to them a beast of burden.

    Re, the late introduction of the stirrup I can see that ruining my pleasure in an awful lot of films from now on.

  6. Stirrups were very well known in the Medieval period. You can see them quite clearly on the Bayeux tapestry and they were known to the late Anglo Saxons and Vikings. Stirrup arrangements on side-saddles is quite another question. Early side saddles such as the kind Eleanor of Aquitaine would have known, were more like a chair with a platform footrest and nothing like Regency period saddles. Empress Matilda, when riding 'en seant' 'as women were accustomed to do' i.e. side-saddle, was told she would have to part her legs and ride astride if they were to outrun their enemies. (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal circa 1226 referencing 1140's. It's probably a good guess to say that Eleanor of Aquitaine rode some of the way to the land of the Greeks astride her mount, but we just don't know and a guess is all it is. There is no primary source reference to say how she rode.

  7. Interesting article,and comments! In the account rolls, circa 1265, of Eleanor de Montfort the Countess of Leicester there's an item for leather riding pants. Chaps, one might ask? She apparently was riding astride.
    As for the medical beliefs, in the 1890s my grandmother's mother, when pregnant and wanting no more children, took to riding often in hope of miscarrying. And she had no more children.

  8. Marvelous post by Christy English, and marvelous comments. I love this blog.


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