Galloway racehorses: the “Noble Bruites” racing before Charles II in 1684?

A fascinating image in the Royal Collection provides an interesting insight into horse racing in the days of Charles II. The image is a print dating to 1687 created by Francis Barlow, entitled “The Last Horse Race run Before Charles II of Blessed Memory”. It  shows King Charles II at Dorsett Ferry Races in the year 1684, and was published to commemorate the king after his death.

It is also the only image in existence that actually shows the so-called Merry Monarch Charles attending a race meeting. It is widely presumed that Charles II, along with other Stuart monarchs, played a significant part in the development of horse racing in Britain. Racing was certainly popular among the elite by this point, and had been a particularly well-supported activity in Scotland and the north of England since at least the early sixteenth century. So much so in fact that the satirist David Lindsay mocked the activities of the sporty Scottish court in 1552:

Better go revell at the racket
Or ellis go to the hurlie hackat
Or then – to schaw our curtlie corsses
Ga se quha best can rin thair horses. 

The oldest sporting trophies in existence are the Carlisle Bells, awarded for horse races at the end of the sixteenth century, and still on view in the city’s Guildhall. Eila Williamson published an interesting paper which reveals the advanced state of horse racing in Scotland in the early seventeenth century, with handicaps, penalties, prizes, and various other accoutrements associated with the modern sport of horse racing.

The scholar Andrea Tonni notes that when Henry VIII was engaged in horse exchanges with the Gonzagas of Mantua, the best racers that Henry had were “Scottish runners”, which Tonni suggests were Galloways. The reputation of the Galloways for speed was subsequently endorsed by various commentators including Michael Drayton and Bishop Leslie.

So precisely what horses were available as runners in the reign of Charles II, prior to the development of the Thoroughbred? Barbs had long been prized as racers, and had provided the main foundation stock for the Gonzaga family in the creation of their breed(s) (razze) for the Palio races. Gonzagan mares were sent to Henry VIII, who gifted Hobbies and equos gradarios, ambling horses, in return. Some of these are likely to have been Irish and Scottish, but not identified as such in the official documentation. The island of Britain was famous for the quality of its ambling horses, and those in Scotland, and particularly in Galloway, were reckoned the best by many commentators, including Bishop Leslie who wrote about them in the 1570s.

Barbs and Spanish horses were referenced by elite horsemen such as William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, who also named the Galloways as the best nags in Scotland. North African Barbs had been recognised as valuable horses for a long time. Shakespeare acknowledges this in his references to the famous roan Barbary of Richard II. Turks appear in the documentation during the sixteenth century too. However, due to the complex relationship between Europe and Turkey during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the terms Turk or Turkoman were frequently not a popular choice to describe horses. Many horses that most likely were Turkoman type were not described as such. But weren’t there Arabs, or Arabian horses, too?

As I wrote elsewhere, “The Arabian, or more correctly, Arab horse, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most influential horse breeds in the world. Enthusiasts of the breed admire its beauty and its quality of endurance. They also frequently claim it has a long and influential history, some suggesting this dates back to the days of the kings of Egypt, if not beyond”.  (To read the rest of this paper go to: https://trivent-publishing.eu/img/cms/9-%20Miriam%20A%20Bibby_Cheiron%201-2021.pdf)

The issue is that there are major problems with many interpretations of literary sources, and Arab, or Arabian horses are frequently identified as such in documentary and visual sources without providing any support for this belief. In Britain, the first properly identified Arabian horse (at least by name) is in the work of Gervase Markham in the late sixteenth century, with a further Arabian horse identified later in the reign of James VI/I. This horse was bought from a John Markham, and may have been, if not Gervase’s Arabian, very aged by this time, then one of its offspring. The next reference can be found in parliamentary documents dating to the period of the Commonwealth, in which Cromwell states he wants to acquire horses of this type from Constantinople. His studmaster Rowland Place owned a horse called Place’s White Turk. Scholars such as Alexander Mackay-Smith and Richard Nash suggest that this stallion was a Turkoman/Arabian cross.

Thereafter there is no real evidence for significant imports of Arabian horses until the time of William III. Even then, the terms Turk, Arab, Arabian, and Barb are somewhat liberally applied to horses of various kinds. (Clearly these Orientalist terms made a good selling point for dealers.) The concept of the Thoroughbred racehorse, a blend of equine material from various sources, was not even a twinkle in the Merry Monarch’s eye in 1684. So what are the clearly small, docked, horses racing to please the king at his last trip to the races?

Print by Francis Barlow, The Last Horse Race run Before Charles II of Blessed Memory, depicting Charles II at Dorsett Ferry Races in 1684. Published in 1687 in memory of the king. By kind permission of the Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022.

They are evidently not imported Orientals, as various experts in racing history agree. The authors of the informative book The Heath and the Horse suggest that Arabian horse influence cannot be seen in 1670, showing a rare picture of imported Mantuan horses at this date, which would indicate this breed or type was still as popular as it had been in Henry VIII’s day. They suggest that the Barlow image, which obviously is not one of taller imported horses, show how “the few other pictures of the period, such as the Barlow, underline the point over the coarseness of the little racing galloways of the day”, and indicate how later Arab imports after this date would improve the racers. In other words, it would appear to be the case that the horses in the Barlow image are Galloways.

I disagree with the pejorative “coarseness”, as applied to Galloways, and also that the Arab horses later made a significant contribution to the Thoroughbred. This fact is now supported by DNA research which suggests the significant contributors to Thoroughbred speed and stamina were horses of Turkoman, Galloway, and Hobby type, along with Barb influence which may not be quite so obvious as it was introduced in earlier times. However, there can be no ambiguity about this identification, since in the brief span between the image of the non-Arabian Mantuan horses in 1670 and the small racers in 1684 it is clear that no significant improvement could have been made even if Arab(ian) horses had been available and imported, for which there is no evidence.

So these are unequivocally identified as Galloways by experts in this field. What is even more significant is the poem which accompanies the image:

Ancient Rome, with her Olympick Game,
By which she did achieve so great a fame,
When o’er the circus the bright chariots whirld
Surprising with delight the gazing world,
Could ere compare to England’s nobler chase,
When swift as lightning or the winged race

The generous beast outstrips the wind
And leaves the wondering crowd behind.

In this debate monarchs their umpirage boast,
And even an empire’s wealth is won and lost:
The noble bruites with emulation fird,
Scorning by managers to be inspird,
As if they understood their betters will
They show with pride their eager force’s skill.

And without aid of spur or rein
They cut the air and scour the plain

To future times may these illustrious sports
Be only the divertisments of courts
Since the best man, best judge, and best of kings
Whose president the best example brings
When’er his God-like mind unbent from care
To all his pleasures this he would prefer;

So gods of old did not disdain
The rural pastimes of the plain.

And Dorsett ever celebrated be,
For this last honour which arrivd to thee,
Blest for thy prospect all august and gay.
Blest for the memory of this glorious day:
The last great race the royal hero viewd
O Dorsett to thy much-loved plains he owd.

For this alon a lasting name
Records thee in the Book of Fame.

Thus Barlow’s accolades “swift as lightning or the winged race”, “generous beast(s) that outstrip(s) the wind”, “noble bruites with emulation fird” that need “no spur or rein”, showing “with pride their eager force’s skill” are applied to racing Galloways, not imports. There’s no “coarseness” there! As Nicholas Russell pointed out in his book “Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England”, in the sixteenth century most racehorses in Britain were not “foreign exotics” but Irish Hobbies from Ireland and Scottish Galloways “from the peripheral regions of these islands”. It would appear to be still the case in the last days of Charles II.

To support this claim, there is evidence from the year 1681, in which Galloways played an important role in vital negotiations with Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), ruler of Morocco. “Six Gallway naggs” “of the smallest size of Gallowaies that are possible to bee had”  were among the gifts proposed, “and ’twill bee very necessary that they have long tailes, they having little esteeme for others”, and “such a trifle as this obliges theise sort of people more than can bee imagined, for the Moores are of an humor that loves presents mightily”. This might even reflect the fact that racing Galloways were mostly docked, as shown in the image, the order being to make sure that they retain their long tails.

Interestingly, at least some of docking shown in the Barlow image may not represent the kind in which the bone of the tail was cut, but rather a shaving of the tail hair. This was a standard way to maintain ponies underground in the coal mines of Co. Durham and Northumberland, where the pit ponies were always known as gallowas.

And that is where the Galloway nags for Moulay Ismail were despatched from: Sunderland in Co. Durham. However, none of the gifts to Moulay Ismail went down too well, including the “Gallowaies”, which do not appear to have met the required standards, the Emperor having expected “by a description he gave of his fancy impossible to be comprehended, something extreamly small and swift, and not to be found in England”.  It does however highlight that Galloways were seen as a very acceptable gift to a powerful ruler, and that they were identified as fast, and a culturally-specific Scottish product. Also, that the north of England was seen as a shipping point for them.  The term Galloway, or rather gallowa, is still used in the north of England as a generic for horses and ponies.

So why were the racers in the Barlow image not identified as Galloways in the poem? It’s clear that the reputation of the Galloways for speed was known as far away as Morocco. There could be several reasons, including cultural appropriation. Henry VIII had appropriated Irish Hobbies as an English breed when exchanging them with the Gonzaga family. Alternatively, it may have been that Galloways from Galloway itself retained a particular reputation for speed over the English “running horses”. However, it seems highly likely that the noble brutes racing in this image dating to the reign of Charles II’s were pony-sized Galloways, not Orientals. 

Miriam A Bibby, April 2022.

Further reading: The Heath and the Horse: A History of Newmarket Heath: A History of Racing and Art on Newmarket Heath Hardcover – 30 Sept. 2015, by David Oldrey and Timothy Cox, with additional material by Richard Nash.