Writing Horses and the Aristocratic Lifestyle: the Pre-History

Horses and the Aristocratic Lifestyle in Early Modern England
William Cavendish, First Earl of Devonshire (1551-1626) and his Horses

Published in the spring, just in time for the Horses & Courts symposium at the Wallace Collection, Horses and the Aristocratic Lifestyle in Early Modern England describes the significance of horses to the life of an aristocrat, his family and his estate. The horse was essential for transportation, of course, but also central to hunting and other leisure pursuits. Horses could also assert status and power. In the hands of Professor Peter Edwards this study expertly teases out the social, economic and cultural aspects of the horse in aristocratic life. We are delighted to have published it and happier still to post this exclusive article on the book’s background and development.

For a person, who had only ridden donkeys on the beach as a boy on holiday, it still feels strange to be considered an expert on equine history. I did tend animals on Shropshire farms as a teenager, honing my rugby-skills tackling sheep and side-stepping cattle…but no horses. Naturally, my D.Phil. dissertation dealt with agriculture and rural society in North Shropshire in the seventeenth century. If the main finding was cheese (lots of it), the research inadvertently revealed the even more significant subject of horses (though one should not under-estimate the importance of cheese in the diet of your average Stuart peasant). As horses played a crucial role in the social, economic, cultural, political, legal and military (you name it) life of the country, society would not have functioned effectively without them. Moreover, because sixteenth century legislation required sales of horses to be officially recorded, they are the best documented of all domesticated animals. A chance discovery of a set of toll-books for Shrewsbury fair alerted me to the fact and led to a countrywide search for other examples. I published the book on the horse trade in 1988.

If that book viewed horses as commodities, I learned better through exposure to the views of scholars from other disciplines. By the time I published the follow-up book, Horse and Man, in 2007 the account I wrote was a far more nuanced one. Nonetheless, I remained essentially a bottom-up historian until a colleague organised a retirement conference for me in 2009. In the papers one person kept cropping up: William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle and the owner of riding schools at Bolsover and Welbeck. It therefore seemed appropriate to my co-editor (Professor Elspeth Graham) and me to launch the book at Bolsover in a conference dedicated to the duke. That collection appeared in 2016.

Want to read more? Buy the book here.

I was now firmly a top-down historian and a Cavendish family one to boot. Initially, I intended to write a book on the relationship between the duke’s family and their horses over 250 years, incorporating the dynastic descent through the Cavendish, Holles, Harley and Bentinck lines. Unfortunately, inconsistencies in the documentation – variable quality, quantity and subject matter- made me turn to the Hardwick/Chatsworth branch and then progressively to reduce the project to the seventeenth century; the period 1597-1642; and finally to an individual: William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire, firstly over his life (1551-1626) and then to the years 1597-1623.

If the chronology of the book had narrowed substantially, the omnipresence of horses in early modern society expanded its content enormously. The book might be brief in its date-range but it is detailed and wide-ranging in its subject-matter. For a start I had to put Cavendish’s horses into the context of the overall management of his estate and then in another chapter describe how he integrated them into the farming regime on the demesne. Moreover, because of the equine focus, I could not lump together a discussion of Cavendish’s acquisition of horses and their care in a single chapter. So, I wrote three: breeding and rearing; buying and selling; and care and maintenance. Then, as I wanted to view Cavendish’s lifestyle on the hoof, as it were, the single chapter on travel would not suffice: it eventually split into four. Apart from discussing the role horses played in Cavendish’s social, economic and political activities in the provinces and in London, I had to consider the logistical problems of moving the family, staff and vast piles of luggage (and metropolitan purchases) from place to place. Finally, I had to explore the ways in which the elite amused themselves on their visits and although some of the pursuits were equine-based, others that were not had to be included (as was religion).

Clearly, the content mutated over the course of the writing process, as a glance at my original proposal indicates. But, as I admit in the preface, just as I found it impossible to write a book about an aristocrat and his horses without discussing his lifestyle, it would be equally impossible to write a book on the aristocratic lifestyle without highlighting the centrality of horses to it.

Guest Post by Peter Edwards

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