Celia Fiennes: fine lady on a white horse?

The Fiennes Lady

The horseback journeys of Celia Fiennes – yes, of that Fiennes family – provide a significant source of information about 17th – 18th century British life. Between 1682 and 1712, Celia made several rides, some short, some very lengthy, throughout England. She also visited Flintshire in Wales and spent a brief amount of time in Scotland. She kept a journal of the places she visited and what she saw there and in 1888 this was published, through the efforts of one of her relatives, as “Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary”.

A major edition of her work was issued in 1947 and Christopher Morris, the editor of that work and also a 1982 edition, commented: “The text printed in 1888 does her much less than justice and has made her seem unintelligent at times […]; she deserves a full transcription and an accurate statement of the few facts about her which are ascertainable.” The quotes in this article are taken from this edition.

The illustrated edition of Celia's journals by Christopher Morris

There’s no doubt that her spelling and punctuation, if found in an essay handed in to a modern secondary school teacher, would result in her being placed in a remedial class: “…thence to Winchester; in one mile off the town is Woolsey that was formerly the Bishops house, a large rambling building like a little town, this is on Maudline Hill whereon a considerable Faire is kept neare Michelmas, the traffique mostly hopps which that Country produceth good and cheese; its noted for a vast many of waines from severall parts especially from the West Country.”

Despite the missing apostrophes, which are balanced throughout her journals by many examples of extraneous ones, this passage will also serve to show Celia’s great observational skills and her genuine ability to create clear and vivid images in the mind of the reader.

Celia was a member of a powerful Parliamentarian family and she makes many references to relatives with whom she stayed in the south of England whilst on her tours. She relished the wealth of great houses and the ordered gardens that surrounded them.  Her northern rides, sometimes into country areas that were (and still are) remote and wild, are much more adventurous and would certainly have been unusual for a woman of her time and background. She rode, ostensibly to improve her health but also from a strong sense of curiosity to find out about the land in which she lived. Although in her own introduction she says that she thinks only her relatives will read this, her wish that her fellow countrymen and women will go out and explore their own land, rather than travelling abroad, suggests that she hoped for a wider readership. She has been described as an early “economic tourist” and certainly, as a Puritan with a strong work ethic and commercial sense, the things that fascinate her most of all are industry, mines, agriculture and any signs of successful business activity.

Newby Hall in Yorkshire, one of the great houses visited by Celia

Long before Jane Austen and her heroines who yearned to visit Bath and revel in its social scene, Celia was a real connoisseur of Britain’s spa towns, or “spaws”, as she writes it. She describes the smell and appearance of several of the spa waters she visited; and Celia bravely drank or was immersed into some of these, as appropriate.

Practical and earthy

At Harrogate, she describes her horse’s reaction to one of the healing springs, which smelled of rotting flesh or a lavatory:  “From thence we went over to Haragate which is just by the Spaw, two mile further over a Common that belongs to Knarsborough, its all marshy and wett and here in the compass of 2 miles is 4 very different springs of water: there is the Sulpher or Stincking spaw, not improperly term’d for the Smell being so very strong and offensive that I could not force my horse near the Well, there are two wells together with basons in them that the Spring rises up in, which is furr’d with a White Scumm over it…it comes from Brimstone mines for the taste and smell is much of Sulpher, tho’ it has an additional offenciveness like carrion or a jakes…”

Celia was not particularly interested in historical features such as Stonehenge (“Stoneage” as she writes it), the Vales of the White Horse or the Red Horse. She notes them in passing, but what interests her more is the richness of the soil of the Vale of Evesham and that it produces “corn and fruites and woods.” She does visit some notable historical sites such as the standing stones known as Long Meg and her daughters in what is now Cumbria, but there is a sense of duty about it and her practical mind is always to the fore, rather than any romantic stories of lovers turned to stone: “…however what the first design of placeing them there either as a marke of that sort of moorish ground or what else, the thing is not so wonderfull as that of Stonidge.”

Like Austen’s practical heroine Elinor Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility”,  signs of prosperity and industry in the landscape were what attracted Celia, not the picturesque or remote.  Coming from a Puritan background she has been described as “prim”, but her journeys, on which she was mostly accompanied by only one or two servants or guides, would have added to her independent and practical spirit and surely have broadened her experience. She enjoyed food and drink, especially the Nottingham ale; and at Castleton she describes the hill along the side of which the road winds back and forth: “…this is what they call the Devills Arse a Peake…”

Celia relished sampling regional food and drink throughout her journeys. Even at a time when beer or ale was the daily tipple, as water was so variable in quality, her descriptions of the ales, beers, cheeses and so on clearly indicate her pleasure in eating and drinking at the end of a day in the saddle. Similarly, she examines and describes the fabrics seen in local markets, such as that of Newcastle upon Tyne, in such detail and with such enjoyment that it suggests a keen interest in her appearance.

The perils of travelling

What of the horse, or horses which accompanied Celia on her travels? We learn very little of these. Her journeys are not of the type that became popular in the 19th or 20th centuries, such as Tschiffeley’s ride, when the horses were travelling companions and shared in and contributed to the experience. In Celia’s time, the use of the carriage or coach was widespread in and around London and the surrounding counties (carriage for town, coach for longer journeys) and there were, by this time, regular coach services between the larger cities, but the services were subject to frequent delays due to the weather or state of the roads (how familiar!). However, further out into the countryside, most people still rode and carried their goods on horseback. There was a coach at the coronation of Elizabeth I, but it was empty; no serving lady wanted to ride in it for they would rather ride on horseback. Serving women often travelled between employments on the back of pack ponies as “half a pack” and it seems to have been  a perilous way to travel. At least one fell asleep and was crushed to death.

Celia probably viewed horses in much the same way as we do a bus or a train. It’s only when it breaks down that we take notice. Celia noticed when her horse balked at the smell of the spring water in Harrogate, as we’ve seen; on another occasion in Oxford: “…I saw flax in the growth; the smell of the Woade is so strong and offencive you can scarce bear it at the Mill: I could not forse my horse neare it.” Every occasion when her stumbled and she fell, or nearly fell, is described. At Lancaster, for instance:  “…when I came into the town the stones were so slippery crossing some channells that my horse was quite down on his nose but did at length recover himself and so I was not thrown off or injured, which I desire to bless God for…”

At Alsford (Alresford) the road was slippery and: “forceing my horse out of the hollow way his feete failed, and he could no wayes recover himself and so I was shott off his neck upon the bank, but noe harm I bless God, and as soone as he could role himself up stood stock still by me, which I looked on as a great mercy – indeed mercy and truth allwayes have attended me..” Similarly in Cornwall, where her horse fell into a hole full of water, but,  “giving him a good strap he flounc’d up againe, tho’ he had gotten quite down his head and all, yet did retrieve his feete and gott cleer off the place with me on his back.”

One point of particular interest to horse riders is that farriers are mentioned more than once; the mark of a real rider who knows that no journey will be made on a horse unless its feet are in good condition. The roads being so stony in Cumberland, for instance, she is delighted to discover an excellent farrier who shoes so well that instead of the usual two or three days, the horseshoes stay on for six weeks – no mean achievement when on a journey such as hers.

 Working horses of the time

Celia also notes the working horses of Britain, but only with reference to their functions. There is no indication of an interest in welfare or conditions and rarely of breeds or types. In Flintshire, for instance, the coal “pitts” or mines are drained by wheels turned by horses; at  Windermere, the ways are such that there’s no room for carriages, but only vehicles “like little wheel-barrows that with a horse they convey their fewell and all things else; they also use horses on which they have a sort of pannyers some close come open that they strew full of hay turff and lime…” She does note the abundance of horses in the area, though. Similarly, at Shrewsbury the town is supplied by water from pipes through a “a Water house” but she comments that the water needs to be drawn up by horses and “it seemes not to be a good and easye way…”

One native British breed, now extinct, that does receive a mention is that of the Goonhillies of Cornwall, which Celia calls “Canelys” or “Canelles”. They were small in size but tripped along, according to Celia, unlike Celia’s horses whose shoes wore thin and came off. Fortunately, she found another good farrier. With her eye to efficiency, economy and commerce, Celia commented deprecatingly on the fact that the locals walked alongside their horses supporting the loads and felt that the roads were sufficiently good and broad that they could have used wheeled vehicles of some kind and thus carried three times as much. She also comments on the “waines” or waggons of Devonshire, which were loaded high up and pulled by sure-footed horses. In that county there were also horses with panniers where waggons could not pass. She also enjoys watching the carriers’ horses loaded with cloth on their way to the fulling mill. She writes very deprecatingly of Scottish carts with “wheels like a dungpott” but then she was not impressed at all by her visit north of the border. The country, the people and the subsistence way of farming were not something to which she could relate and the wild landscape was undoubtedly not to her taste.

Another glimpse of equestrian life is given by her description of the races at Penridge, location of one of Britain’s greatest horse fairs at that time. It is one of the many places on her journeys where “the miles are long”, a comment that will endear her to all travellers. At the races, despite the appearance of many of the local gentry, there was only one horse to run for the prize of a silver plate.

Celia’s legacy

Despite her apparent lack of interest in the horses that carried her, I think Celia would have made a superb travelling companion. She is observant, practical, determined, a negotiator and had excellent and often wealthy contacts, in the south of England at least, who could have offered a good bed for the night. She was also a brave rider. On the River Dee crossing in north Wales, she had two guides to take her safely over the treacherous tides and shifting sands: “that would swallow up a horse or carriages…it was at least a mile I went on the sands before I came to the middle of the channell which was pretty deep, and with such a current or tyde which was falling out to sea together with the wind the horses feete could scarce stand against it…”  She also had her horses ferried across the Mersey “in a sort of Hoy”.

I can see her as a modern day journalist, perhaps making journeys by train or car to the north to observe and comment upon those she saw as hardworking versus her concept of the undeserving poor; thrift and labour were met approvingly on her rides but any sign of idleness received short shrift. I think she’d make a very ascerbic columnist, but not a campaigning journalist, perhaps combining her interests in social issues with restaurant reviews. I do wonder whether she’d even consider riding on horseback, or be much more enamoured of the modern motorway and rail systems. For Celia wasn’t a historian, as such; she was recording what she saw as a new world, the world of the fashionable and successful and industrious. She liked the clockwork items of Henry Winstanley at Littlebury in Essex and comments favourably on the Queen’s water closet at Windsor, with its “seat of easement” and sluices – all mod. cons.!  We are wrong if we think of the industrial revolution as being a discrete event that took place in the 19th century. Celia’s times are bustling with industry and commerce and that’s what she records with interest.

To conclude, a little mystery. Was Celia the original “fine lady on  a white horse” in the nursery rhyme “Ride a-cock horse to Banbury Cross”? It has been argued that it was “A Fynes, or Fiennes lady” in the original version and Banbury is a town with strong Parliamentarian connections. Christopher Morris has commented that she often refers to the Market Cross of towns, rather than the Market House or hall. Certainly some of these old rhymes do carry a political or social commentary that has been lost since 19th and 20th century collectors converted them into children’s tales. I think the answer has to be “not proven” in this case, but it’s an intriguing thought!

The Celia Fiennes Waymark in Cheshire (image by Roger Howarth)

 Find out more

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celia_Fiennes; http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007xr5z (Great British Journeys, following in the hoofprints of Celia); http://www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/sport_and_leisure/arts_development/public_art/public_art_trail/rural_districts/celia_fiennes.aspx?addlink=yes (The Celia Waymark in Cheshire);

“The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes, c1682 – c1712”, edited by Christopher Morris, published by Webb & Bower in 1982, with its excellent collection of cityscapes and plates of contemporary Baroque houses, gives a vivid impression of Celia’s journeys.

There seem to be quite a few other indifferently edited versions of Fiennes; I haven’t read the Cambridge University Press edition but it does seem to be the full text: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item5759398/?site_locale=en_GB; http://orlando.cambridge.org/public/svPeople?person_id=fience

There’s also an online version: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/text/contents_page.jsp?t_id=Fiennes

And about the possibility of Celia being the fine lady of the nursery rhyme: http://www.port.ac.uk/research/gbhgis/mediaresources/freearticles/filetodownload,23047,en.pdf; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ride_a_cock_horse_to_Banbury_Crosshttp://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/fiennesbk01.htm

Also of interest: http://www.horsetravelbooks.com/others/celia.htm, a 20th century journey by Elizabeth Barrett, published by Wimpole Books.

1 thought on “Celia Fiennes: fine lady on a white horse?

  1. Pingback: “To See a Fine Lady on a White Horse” | Every Woman Dreams…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.