Horses in History: Britain’s Royal Mews

Today, HN’s resident equine historian Lorraine Jackson takes us inside the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace to learn about the Mews (queenspeak for “stable”) and the horses who live there.

Top photo: Queen Elizabeth II at the Mews

From Lorraine:

In honor of the approaching Olympiad’s location in the heart of modern sport horse glory, today we explore the history of the Queen’s Mews of London, the ornate and fantasy-inducing site of the Royal family’s horses and ceremonial carriages (as well as a fancy automobile or two, which I suppose you could learn more about at CarNation, if such a thing exists).

Golden carriage

The name “mews” is actually a hawk and falconry term that refers to the time each year when the birds are moulting, or shedding their feathers. Beginning in the 1370s, the royal family’s hunting hawks and falcons were put in the stables to moult, far from the finer furnishings, and thus began the dubbing of the royal stables as “The Mews”.

The Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace

The original Mews were demolished in the early 19th century, at what is now Trafalgar Square, and the horses and accoutrements were moved to south of Buckingham Palace, where they remain today. Millions of visitors flock (no pun intended) to the Mews each year to see the ornate ceremonial carriages, such as the Gold State Coach used in coronations, and the open-top State Landau Coach used in the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.

The Royal wedding with Windsor Greys

While the coaches aim to steal the show with rich ornate detail, the true crown jewel of the livery is the horses. The Mews are the home of Britain’s most esteemed hooved royals: the Queen’s beloved Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bays.

The Windsor Greys are not a particular breed, but rather any grey (or gray, for us funny-spelling Americans) that is specifically bred and subsequently selected by the Royals to join the official ranks. Their selection is based primarily on temperament and appearance, as their singular duty is pulling or accompanying the Queen’s Coach. The horses are saddle trained before they are carriage trained, and should you ever feel like taking a walk in St. James’s Park at around five in the morning, you may see the Greys getting an early morning hack in downtown London.

The Windsor Greys in wedding procession

The Cleveland Bays, named not for the American Ohio city but rather for the Cleveland District of Yorkshire, originated some time in the 1600s, and is considered the oldest non-draft English breed. They were developed by Church of England officials in want of a hardy but swift pack horse that could carry goods to more remote abbeys and monasteries in northeast England.  They are mixtures of English drafts, Spanish andalusians, and much later, thoroughbred and arabian blood was added to make them the slightly taller and leggier carriage horse they are now.  They are only ever true bays in color. Despite their popularity and beloved royal status, the Cleveland Bay is extremely rare, with approximately 500 purebreds in the world. They are, however, foundational lineage to some of today’s most popular breeds including Oldenburg, Holstein, and Hanoverian varieties.

The Royal Cleveland Bays

While the horses and carriages may only be used and seen by the world during great ceremonies of pomp and circumstance, the Queen’s Mews continue to be an iconic element of the Royal British image and experience. In 2013, a bronze statue of the Windsor Greys will be erected in London to honor the Queen’s 60th coronation anniversary.

Queen Elizabeth’s personal horses, such as her Canadian police horses, her Suffolk punch purebreds, and her personal hacking pony are all kept at estates outside the Royal Mews. The spry Queen Elizabeth still rides with family, never mind that she’ll be turning 86 this April. Queen Elizabeth’s lifelong passion for horses has continued to make equestrianism a vibrant and memorable characteristic of Britain’s Royal family, and the Crown’s willingness to share the Mews with eager equine tourists everywhere allows us a glimpse at this elegant piece of royal history.

Queen Elizabeth II in 1939

Queen Elizabeth II riding with grandchildren in 2011


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