For research purposes, I’ve recently found myself reading a number of non-fiction books about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her “Sweet Robin”, with whom she carried on a long and flirtatious relationship. They had known each other most of their lives and had both been incarcerated in the Tower of London at the same time whilst young. They each had a parent who had died as a traitor under the blow of the headsman’s axe. Their support for each other through the stress and trauma of their early lives undoubtedly contributed to the length, and indeed success, of their unconventional friendship, or love affair – however you want to view it.
Dudley was Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse; and the interesting thing about that is how few historians comment on the significance of it. Biographers are happy to discuss whether the relationship between the two of them was sexual; whether or not they were complicit in the death of Dudley’s wife; whether or not a certain portrait depicts Elizabeth and Leicester apparently doing the “Volta”, which looks like an early version of the jive. Whoever they are, the man has his hand on an intimate part of the woman’s anatomy as he throws her into the air and the woman doesn’t look in the least offended. Far from it.
Being Master of the Horse to a monarch means taking on a historically powerful role along with the title. When the ancient kings of Egypt, their courtiers and military leaders adopted the use of the horse and chariot, there was not only a requirement for a “Master of the Horse”, but also a pre-eminence and importance conveyed by the title to its holders. One of the best known of these was Ay, Master of the Horse at the court of King Akhenaten. Sadly, no manual of responsibilities or training, horse care and management has yet been found in ancient Egypt, although we can reconstruct a certain amount of knowledge from one or two remaining stable block foundations and other archaeological remains, from chariotry and equipment, mainly from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and from some royal inscriptions, particularly those of Amenhotep II and Ramesses II.
What we don’t know is how much of the ancient role required a hands on approach. It seems unlikely to have simply been a status title. Some knowledge of horse care and management would be required, but possibly that wasn’t the key skill in acquiring the title. The author of the most ancient treatise on horse training, the Mitannian Kikkuli, was neither royal nor a courtier. He was a practical trainer recruited to impart his knowledge to what author and hippologist Anthony Dent calls, with his usual forthrightness, “the thickear squadron-leaders of the Hittite Chariotry Corps.” From the beginning of the relationship between horses and humans, horses have conveyed status to those who could understand their natures and make use of them for display, in warfare and in hunting. Mostly, though, the trainers and grooms could probably only bask in reflective glory as they watched the cream of their various national elites claim the horsemanship credits. King Amenhotep II of Egypt claimed that he was given the best horses from his father’s stable and that he understood their nature and behaviour better than anyone else; Ramesses II said that after the Battle of Kadesh he would visit his stables every day to feed his horses, Victory-in-Thebes and Mut-is-Content, with his own hands, so valiantly had they performed on the battlefield. Thanks to him – and the unseen, unacknowledged army of trainers, handlers, veterinary specialists, water and fodder carrying grooms and underlings, of course. Many of the grooms appear to have been Nubians and it’s highly likely that Nubia had its own extremely knowledgeable horse culture before that of Egypt. They were specialists, specially recruited for the job; but most of the status-bearing roles went to Egyptians.
And so, through the ages, from the wily old courtier Ay, through the dashing Duke of Buckingham in the reign of James VI/I, right up to modern times, rulers and their Masters of the Horse go together like a – well, like a horse and chariot. Or two horses and a chariot. So, what do you think Elizabeth and Robert talked about when they got together? Did they share sweet flirtatious nothings or discuss the Spanish situation or laugh over a scandalous poem about the court? Of course they didn’t! They talked about HORSES, for goodness’ sake. And where there are horses, one thing predominates, the most significant and difficult part of horse-keeping. A stable of 200 horses produces a LOT of muck. It is either a useful by-product or a damn problem. If you can’t manage muck, you can’t manage a stable. A modern day riding stable near the Giza pyramids took its muck out to the desert for years, resulting in interesting stratigraphy that archaeologists have come to call the “HSS layer”. One of the “s’s” stands for “sand”. You can guess the rest. Meanwhile, back in Elizabethan England…
“Yes, my liege, my most adorable Gloriana, what is it?”
“Grey Tilbury refused his breakfast this morning! Even though I offered it to him with my own fair hands! Robin, what is amiss with him? Is it colic, think ye?”
“Nay, most supreme monarch, it is simply the fresh spring grass. That is the only thing that tempteth him…”
“Oh. Have a care, Robin, that he overindulgeth not. For the pony gout is a terrible scourge. Why, only yesterday I was reading in the “Proclamation of Ye Oddfellows of Ye Noble Horse” that – ”
“Fear not, Ma’am, for I will restrict him to but a few hours in the forenoon.”
“Two hours, Robin! But two hours, for according to the Proclamation…”
“Aye, Ma’am. As Your Majesty wills. And, if you would care to cast the Royal gaze upon this?”
“What is it?”
“It is the proposed arms for the collectors of dung from ye royal paddocks. A crossed shovel and broom argent, over bucket or, from which steam is rising, with the motto “ordure et endure” on field vert…”
Queen (clapping hands with joy): “Just the job, Robin! Just the job.”