Monday, May 25, 2020

Equestrian Pageantry in Tudor and Stuart Times

by Margaret Porter

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle

The basis of equestrian pageantry began with Xenophon of Athens, who first codified the movements. His treatise On Equitation (circa 400 BC) was first printed in 1512, inspiring centuries of artistic horsemanship, the origin of modern-day dressage. It was then referred to as the Art of Manège, or High School Riding. Riding academies were founded--initially in Italy and Spain. Over time the horse trainer, noble rider, choreographer, composer, and costumier united to develop a popular and exclusive entertainment. During the Renaissance, horse ballets or carrousels rose to prominence at European royal courts, eventually replacing jousting tournaments. A carrousel featured a mock battle, with group manueuvres, quadrilles, and individual feats showcasing elements of the balancing, leaping, jumping, and flying 'airs above the ground': the levade, croupade, courbette, ballotade, and capriole.


English royalty preferred court masques to carrousels. But everyone liked a clever horse and rider. The common people tended to prefer low comedy to balletic grace.
Marocco & William Baknes
Marocco, sometimes referred to as Bankes's horse, was the most famous dancing horse of the Renaissance. Born 1586, he was alternately described as a bay, a chestnut, or white. Petite and well-muscled, he was extremely agile, intelligent, and easily trained. His owner, William Bankes of Staffordshire, took his marvel to London. Marocco's initial performances took place in Gracechurch Street, and he was later stabled at the Belle Sauvage Inn and performed there. Marocco, who wore silver horseshoes, could dance a jig, count, play dead, walk on his back legs, and urinate on command. He could also identify which ladies in his audience were sluts, and which were virtuous. He made his bow to Queen Elizabeth I. And he bared his teeth at King Philip of Spain. John Donne and Shakespeare knew of Marocco (there's a reference in Love's Labours Lost) and almost certainly witnessed performances similar to this:

Banks perceiving, to make the people laugh, saies; 'seignior,' to his horse, 'go fetch me the veryest foole in the company.' The jade comes immediately, and with his mouth drawes Tarlton [a famous clown and comedian] forth. Tarlton with merry words, said nothing but, 'God a mercy, horse.' In the end Tarlton, seeing the people laugh so, was angry inwardly, and said: 'Sir, had I power of your horse as you have, I would doe more than that.' 'What ere it be,' said Banks, to please him, 'I will charge him to do it.' 'Then,' said Tarleton: 'charge him bring me the veriest whore-master in the company.' The horse leades his master to him. Then 'God a mercy horse indeed,' saies Tarlton. (1611)
The horse was immortalised in various verses. One example:

Bankes hath a horse of wondrous qualitie
For he can fight, and pisse, and daunce, and lie,
And finde your purse, and tell what coyne ye have:
But Bankes, who taught your horse to smell a knave?

In 1601 he performed his greatest feat, climbing the thousand steps to perform on the rooftop of St. Paul's Cathedral--the medieval one, not the Christopher Wren one with the dome. After touring England and visiting Scotland, he travelled to Europe. In Paris he caused such a sensation that Bankes was accused of sorcery, and to save himself revealed that he controlled the horse primarily through hand gestures. Marocco performed in Germany and travelled as far as Portugal. Returning to England, Bankes worked as a trainer in the royal stables during James I's reign, and also trained the Duke of Buckingham's horses.

Bankes's acquaintance Gervase Markham produced A Discourse on Horsemanship (1593), in which he writes of 'that most excellent and prayse worthie gyft, the breeding and ryding and trayning uppe of horses.' In his multi-volume Cavelarice: Or the English Horseman (1608) dedicated to Prince Henry, James I's son and containing William Bankes's secrets for training Marocco. Markham attributes human emotions to horses, stating, 'It is most certaine that everie horse is possest with these passions: love, joy, hate, sorrow and feare.' He also charts the different 'humours' during the lifetime of the horse as it matures: 'Now these tempers do alter, as the powers of a horse either increase or diminish, as thus, a Foale is said to have his temper from the Fire and Ayre, a horse of middle age from the Fire and the Earth, and a horse of the old age from the Earth and the Water.'

1st Duke of Newcastle
William Cavendish, the polymath First Duke of Newcastle was one of the great riders of his age. Margaret Cavendish, his duchess and biographer, describes the admiration his riding excited at the English court, where was responsible for the education of the future King Charles II. In that role imparted his riding skills to the then-Prince of Wales:
But not only strangers but his Majesty himself, our now gracious Sovereign, was pleased to see my Lord ride, and one time did ride himself, he being an excellent master of that art, and instructed by my Lord, who had the honour to set him first on a horse of manage when he was his governor [instructor, tutor]...his Majesty's capacity was such that being but ten years of age he would ride leaping horses and such as would overthrow others and manage them with the greatest skill and dexterity to the admiration of all that beheld him.
A firm and devoted Royalist, Newcastle spent Interregnum on the Continent. In Antwerp, where he occupied the house associated with painter Peter Paul Rubens, he established a riding school. Then, and later, he published books on horsemanship and established his famous riding-school, exercised 'the art of manège' (High School riding), and published his first work on horsemanship, Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux (1658). After the Restoration and his return to England, he published A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses and Work them according to Nature (1667).

He was not humble about his abilities and their effect upon spectators:
The Marquess of Caracena was so civilly earnest to see me ride that he was pleased to say it would be a great satisfaction to him to see me on horseback, though the horse should but walk...he came to my manage [manège] and I rid first a Spanish horse called Le Superbe, of a light bay a beautiful horse, and though hard to be rid yet when he was hit right he was the readiest horse in the world. He went in corvets forward backward sideways on both hands made the cross perfectly upon his voltoes and did change upon his voltoes, so just without breaking time that a musician could not keep time better, and went terra a terra [terre-á-terre] perfectly. The second horse I rid was another Spanish called Le Genty, and was rightly named so for he was the finest-shaped horse that ever I horse ever went terra a terra like him so just and so easy and for the piroyte [pirouette] in his length so just and so swift, that the standers by could hardly see the rider's face...truly when he had done I was so dizzy that I could hardly sit in the saddle. The third and last horse I rid then was a Barb that went...very high both forward and upon his voltoes and terra a terra. And when I had done riding, the Marquess of Caracena seemed to be very well-satisfied, and some Spaniards that were with him crossed themselves and cried 'Miraculo!'


Grand  Carrousel, 1662

Many English aficionados of equestrian skill were exposed to the carrousel at the French court. Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620), a well-born Frenchman, studied equitation and other subjects in Italy, returned to found an academy at Faubourg St. Honore. He served as chief instructor, or gouveneur, to the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, and his precepts for riding were published in The Maneige Royal, or L'Instruction du Roy (1623), written as a dialogue between master and pupil. In 1612, Pluvinel devised a fifteen-minute carrousel celebrating the marriage of ten-year-old Louis and Anne of Austria.

Like father, like son. The 1662 Grand Carrousel at the Tuileries, performed over two days, celebrated the birth of the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV. It was a grand display of the young King's power and splendour. Louis participated, as did the royal dukes. The riders and their horses were elaborately costumed, and the characters were allegorical and representative in nature--Romans, Turks, famous warriors from history. Teams of participants, each led by a duke or the king, performed this ballet to music created by the court composer Lully. The horses' decorations alone cost one hundred thousand livres. Though not English by birth, England's Dowager Queen, Henrietta Maria, witnessed her nephew's performance.

Louis XIV in Le Grand Carrousel

Monsieur, the King's brother

In May 1686, the two-day Carrousel des Galantes Amazones was held at Versailles. All the most important people received tickets, including the English ambassador, Sir William Trumbull, and his wife. The story depicted was that of Alexander the Great (portrayed by the now adult Dauphin) and the Amazon Queen Thalestris (the Duchess of Bourbon). This was the first time ladies appeared in a carrousel, and all, men and women, were spectacularly attired in costumes by Jean Berain.
Carrousel des Amazones at Versailles, 1686

The King's Champion

After every English coronation, an elaborate banquet was served to the participants, and it included a unique and historic ceremony involving equestrian spectacle. A designated 'King's Champion' (or Queen's) mounted on a steed, rode into Westminster Hall and dared anyone to challenge the new ruler's right to succeed. For more than six hundred years members of the Dymock family held this position, although the George IV coronation in 1821 was the occasion that a Dymock was called on to perform his hereditary role, described thus in 1660: have on the Coronation day one of the King's great coursers with a saddle harness and trappings of cloth of gold and one of the best suits of armour with cases of cloth of gold, and all such other things appertaining to the King's body...if he was going into mortal battel. And on the Coronation day to be mounted on the said courser ...being accompanied by the High Constable and Marshal of England and the King's Herald with a trumpet sounding before him to come riding into the Hall to the place where the King sits at dinner with the crown on his proclaim with an audible voice these words following...that if any person of whatsoever degree he be, either high or low, will deny or gainsay that Charles the Second King of England Scotland France and Ireland son and next heir of our late sovereign Lord Charles the First deceased defender of the faith... ought not to enjoy the crown thereof here is his Champion ready by his body to assert and maintain that he lyes like A false traitor, and in that quarrel to adventure his life on any day that shall be assigned him. And thereupon the said Champion throws down his gauntlet, and in case no man shall say that he is ready in that quarrel to combat then as hath been usually done at all former Coronations of Kings and Queens of this realm...

James II's Champion (British Museum)


The famed Royal Lippizzans of Vienna's Spanish Riding School are modern equivalents of the dancing horses of centuries past, as are the Olympians in the dressage competitions in the Summer Games. Modern groups recreate versions of carrousels that were seen by Henrietta Maria, Charles II, and their kinsmen Louis XIII and Louis XIV, and French courtiers. The one I attended in Brussels is an indelible memory. A video of a similar performance is here. A section of Lully's music for the Grand Carrousel can be heard here.

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published December 15, 2016.
Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. The Carrousel des Amazones is the setting for a scene in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans.

Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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  1. Amazing to think of the cultural and economic impact of horses throughout time. Cool article! :)

  2. Yes! And glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. An excellent article, Margaret. I visited Chatsworth in the summer and was amazed at the size of the Cavendish stables.


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