By Dr. Paula Sells, HRL Guest Author
When asked to think of the famous monuments in England’s ancient capital famous names spring to mind including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Tower of London. As is often the case, horse history is overlooked. That is why many people are unaware of the Royal Stables created by King Richard II in 1377.
The renowned British equestrian historian Dr. Paula Sells has composed a beautifully illustrated article which reveals the equine treasure that has served the Royal family for 645 years.
To understand the mystery of the word Mews, is to appreciate the history of the stables themselves. It is a name that echoes from a time of chivalry in England and surprisingly, is a name less to do with stabling horses and more to do with birds. In medieval times when minstrels sang of unicorns resting in the laps of virgins and tapestries romanticised the valour of knights winning fair ladies, a more common theme was that of hunting on horseback with a hawk or with hounds.
Held on the rider’s fist, trained birds of prey were used to hunt small wild game such as pheasant, duck, rabbits and hares for sport or for the cooking pot – a tradition known in Persia (Iran) some 4,000 years ago and which spread across Arabia and Europe, later to be called falconry.
Hawks and horses were ancient partners in England too, as illustrated by carvings on Pictish stones in AD 843 and in the Bayeux Tapestry where a rider with hawk and hounds is embarking on King Harold’s ship for France in 1064.
It is this hunting partnership which is enshrined in the word ‘mews.’
Mews means a place (or a cage) where working hawks and falcons may spend the summer during their annual moult until they are fully fit and feathered to fly again in the autumn. The obvious place for this was within the stables where the birds’ feeding and care could be supervised.
In the late 14th century, the royal hawks were housed around an open yard in what is now Trafalgar Square in London. The horses of Henry VII (1457 – 1509) were known to be stabled on this site, so establishing the link between hawks and horses as being accommodated around a courtyard known as the mews.
The word ‘mews’ probably comes from the French verb ‘muer’ meaning to moult. Its use is first recorded in English in the 14th century at a time when the aristocracy spoke French as well as English, following the Norman invasion in 1066. An alternative explanation is that many birds of prey have a call which sounds like the mewing of a cat.
The falconers who trained the birds were well paid and respected. To master the fine judgment in training the bird – a wild predator – to also be obedient to its handler, was, and still is, a highly skilled occupation.
The quality of the horse and the breed of hawk used were important status symbols and hierarchies were observed; a duke would have hunted with a peregrine falcon, a knight with a saker or a gyrfalcon, a priest with a sparrow hawk and a lady with a merlin, while only an emperor would hunt with an eagle. Interestingly, Kazakh herdsmen and women hunt trained eagles today from horseback, returning them to the wild after a few years.
The most famous example today of stables connected to these falconry traditions is the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace in central London. Now however, although the birds of prey have all gone and the position of Master of the Hawks to the King is no more, its name keeps the romance and history of England flying high. The Mews today is a mosaic of the myths and whispers of the past right up to 21st century excellence and precision.
The Royal Mews, adjacent to Buckingham Palace gardens, is home to the nation’s ceremonial horses and coaches, seen in all their dazzling regal splendour on state occasions. Completed in 1825 by John Nash, and hidden behind high walls, it is a village of stables, carriage houses, blacksmiths, feed and harness rooms, a riding school, and staff accommodation, presided over by the Crown Equerry, the Master of the Horse and the Head Coachman.
The late Queen Elizabeth II had a deep knowledge of horses and horsemanship and continued to ride into her nineties. During her seventy year reign she ensured that the traditional crafts, such as coach restoration, heraldic art and harness preservation, were maintained at the Mews and the skills passed from master craftsmen to apprentices.
Her Majesty also arranged for the organisation for disabled riders in London (Riding for the Disabled Association) to have the use of the indoor school where Queen Victoria’s children and her own were taught to ride.
The quality and rarity of the carriages, their accoutrements and harness are arguably the finest in the world. Much of the history of Britain is represented in the decoration and design of livery, carriages and harness.
For example, incorporated in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach are artefacts from past campaigns and exploration; a fragment from a Crimean cannon, a shard of musket ball from the Battle of Waterloo, wood from Scott and Shackleton’s Antarctic base, and on the panels of the Gold State Coach,18th century paintings by Cipriani.
The high standards and attention to detail are extraordinary; the royal insignia on eachof the horses’ rugs is hand-embroidered, the coach builders insist on twenty two coatsof paint and the underside of the folding carriage steps, only ever seen by a footman, is finely decorated in gold leaf. Saddlery for each horse is made to measure for the individual.
However, the Royal Mews is not merely a museum and is actively involved in the daily running of the Royal Household as well as international diplomatic duties. Up to ten carriages a day can leave the Mews. Newly appointed ambassadors from abroad are transported by coach to present their credentials to the monarch. The Messenger Brougham (a single horse carriage) leaves the Mews twice a day to deliver internal mail.
The central quadrangle shaded by London plane trees rings with the sound of horses coming and going on various duties and for inspection and training throughout the day. Currently there are about thirty horses, Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bays, stabled here and at least eighty carriages for all occasions.
The Royal Mews is an extraordinary jewel combining the past and present. It also gives us a perspective on the importance of history and the individuality of Britain as a nation.
The Coronation of King Charles
On 6th May, 2023, the Gold Coach, built in 1762, weighing four tons and drawn by eight Windsor Grey horses willconvey King Charles III and the Queen Consort from theRoyal Mews to Westminster Abbey for the coronation. Queen Elizabeth II travelled inthe same coach for her coronation in 1953.
The Mews is a London address for many houses built in or before the 19th century as they will have been converted from original carriage houses and stables.
There are tours for the public of the Royal Mews where many of the coaches, horses and stables are on display.
Due to the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Mews is closed for the remainder of 2022.
To learn more including the “Daily Routine of a Royal Horse,” visit the Royal Mews Learning Resource on line.
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The staff of the Royal Mews in the stable with Cleveland Bays on the left and Windsor Greys on the right. Photo courtesy of the Royal Mews.