House of Lords 1660-1715… and horseracing

Exciting times at the History of Parliament, as next month we will publish our first set of volumes focussing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is now available for pre-order at Cambridge University Press, at a special pre-publication price.

Over the next month we’ll publish a series of blogposts inspired by research from the volumes. First up, and ready for the Epsom Derby this weekend, our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the peers’ love of the turf…

The worlds of politics and horseracing may seem far apart; but the hinterland of politicians has always included sport, and, as one of the oldest of organised sports, the turf has long had a pull for those whose daily concerns were focused on Westminster – so much so, that the racing meet has sometimes simply been another venue for politicians to do what politicians do. Our sister blog, The Victorian Commons, has described how the House of Commons, from 1847, would regularly adjourn for Derby Day.

But our forthcoming five volumes covering The House of Lords 1660-1715 – containing 716 biographies of those eligible to sit in the upper chamber in the later Stuart period – include many examples of politicians’ interest in horseflesh, going at least to the 1680s. One of those most obsessed was John Lovelace (c. 1641–93), who succeeded his father in 1670 as 3rd Baron Lovelace. Lovelace made use of his passion for horse racing to promote the Whig cause in Oxfordshire, instituting a regular competition to be held at Woodstock each September. He brought Titus Oates, the odious inventor of the ‘Popish Plot’, to the meet in 1679 and encouraged him to preach. Permanently in financial difficulties Lovelace could not sustain the expense of the competition. In 1681 it had to be cancelled when he could find no-one willing to stand him credit for the plate he commissioned as a prize. It was particularly disappointing, as the king’s illegitimate son, the duke of Monmouth (a leader of the movement to exclude Charles II’s brother and heir, James duke of York, from the throne), had been expected to come to the race. Lovelace joined Monmouth at another race hosted at nearby Quainton instead. Monmouth spent his time at the Quainton races that summer with other Whig politicians: Thomas Wharton, later Baron, and eventually marquess of Wharton, whose house was at nearby Winchendon; Arthur Annesley, earl of Anglesey; Philip Sydney, 3rd earl of Leicester and others. A year later the young and dashing duke was engaged in a high-profile tour of the north-west, flagrantly displaying his support as he was extravagantly entertained by nobility and gentry. Among the events at which he was feted were the races at Wallasey.

The name of one of the most prominent peers from 1660-1715 is still probably better known for horse racing than politics, even though Sidney Godolphin (1645–1712), Baron, and later earl of Godolphin, became lord treasurer and was effectively prime minister under queen Anne, and formed, with John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, one of the most powerful political partnerships in British history. Phenomenally dedicated to government business that included fighting an intense continental war, Godolphin relaxed by racing his horses. Foreign diplomats took particular note of his regular attendance at Newmarket in the spring and autumn of each year. Our article on Godolphin shows him shaking the dust of London twice every year to go to Suffolk, and that he would often spend much of his summer travelling to other races. For example, though he was appointed lord treasurer shortly after Queen Anne’s accession in March 1702, he skipped the House of Lords in early April, probably to go to Newmarket, where his horse won £3,000. In late August that year, he was taking horses to Bath, before going back to Suffolk in the autumn. He was back at Newmarket in early April 1703, this time less luckily, for he lost ‘the great horse race’ for 1,000 guineas to John Campbell, 2nd duke of Argyll. That August he was in Bath, catching a cold at Lansdowne racecourse before moving on to Suffolk.

Godolphin didn’t stop working, though, when he went to the races. In April 1698, Newmarket provided an opportunity to discuss the reconstruction of the ministry around Charles Talbot, duke of Shrewsbury. Like Monmouth and Lovelace seventeen years before, Godolphin’s relationship with Thomas Wharton, Baron Wharton, one of the leading Whig politicians (known as the ‘Junto’), was closely connected to racing. In August 1698 he visited Wharton at Winchendon during the Quainton races, before going on to Newmarket. Godolphin would be a frequent attender at Quainton, visiting Wharton at Winchendon in 1704, 1707 and 1708 in order to go to the races. A crisis in the key relationship between Godolphin and the Junto Whigs may have spoiled his visit to Winchendon in August 1708, when Wharton complained that Godolphin

had so little disposition to speak to him that if he had not forced himself into his room at six a clock in the morning the day he was to go away he had not had a word’s conversation with him. And what he said to him then was very dry and disagreeable.

Another of the Junto Whigs, Edward Russell, earl of Orford, lived a few miles from Newmarket at Chippenham: in 1709 Godolphin held talks with him over appointments to the admiralty during his October visit; a year later he dined at Orford’s in the wake of his dismissal by the queen at the hands of his former associate, Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford, and the elections in which he had been courted by the Junto.

Godolphin died in September 1712, a few weeks before the races at Newmarket in which one of his horses was due to run against one of Wharton’s. His son, the second earl, would inherit his passion for racing, and it was he who owned the famous Godolphin Arabian, the ancestor of many of the most successful racehorses.


Look out the rest of the series inspired by the House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes over the next month.

To pre-order your copy, visit Cambridge University Press.

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