Next month the History of Parliament 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. This month we’re publishing a series of blogposts inspired by research from the volumes.
In the fourth of this series, Dr Stuart Handley explores more Peers’ pastimes outside of Westminster – this time the sport of bowls…
The bowling green was a ubiquitous feature of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century life. For some it was a place to see and be seen. Henry Prescott, the deputy registrar of Chester diocese described 9 July 1718 as ‘a bowling day of considerable confluence of gentlemen’. For others, gambling was involved, and probably the main attraction. Thus, for example, John Evelyn won a challenge match for £10 in August 1658. Nor were the peerage exempt from this summer past-time. Lord Conway in July 1758 wrote of bowling, along with riding, walking and visits to the neighbours.
Three generations of the Russell family, earls and then dukes of Bedford all enjoyed the sport. The first duke hosted parties of friends for bowls and cards; the second duke allegedly lost £1,000 at bowls in August 1702; and the third duke hosted parties of local gentlemen for bowls at Woburn. The duke of Marlborough utilised the bowling green at St. Albans for a different social purpose, following his dismissal from his military offices in 1712. He set up his campaign tent on the bowling green and used it to host a celebratory dinner on the anniversary of his triumph at Blenheim. His son-in-law Francis Godolphin, 2nd earl of Godolphin, was also a keen bowls player, once injurying his leg going ‘quick after a bowl’.
The duke of Kent actually expired on the bowling green – at fashionable Tunbridge Wells in August 1702 – ‘just as he had delivered the bowl out of his hand’. As was reported Kent had been at Tunbridge Wells for 10 days, ‘no exercise except a walk after morning prayers for an hour or two and sometimes after evening prayers or on the Bowling Green at Mount Sion’. On this particular occasion he was playing with Lord George Howard, Lord Kingsale and Sir Thomas Powis when he fell. All attempts to revive him failed, including the application of the bowels of a sheep killed in the house to his stomach and belly.
Often, bowling was largely a fashionable pastime. The duke of Norfolk (d. 1701) was also a visitor to the bowling green at Tunbridge in the summer of 1697, when he combined bowling with another fashionable past-time – dancing. As Marlborough showed, bowling greens could be utilised for more general entertainment and in July 1676 there was dancing by torchlight on one bowling green.
Yet on occasion the bowling green could have a political dimension. John Sheffield, 3rd earl of Mulgrave, chose the green at Marylebone as a significant public place in August 1687 to show off his key and staff of office as lord chamberlain and so to quell rumours that he had been dismissed from his offices by James II. Likewise in July 1663 George Digby, 2nd earl of Bristol, chose to play at bowls every day following his failed attempt to impeach the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, in order to demonstrate confidence in his political position.
Putney Bowling Green was a haunt of the Whigs in 1710. Sir Michael Warton informed Robert Harley of twice-weekly meetings being held there and on one Saturday morning Arthur Maynwaring apologized to the duchess of Marlborough for not replying the previous night to her letter because he had been out of town, late, at Putney Bowling Green.
To pre-order your copy, visit Cambridge University Press.