Creating Tradition – Wellesley-Pole and Ascot (Part 5)
The Importance of Wellesley-Pole’s Legacy
William Wellesley-Pole (Lord Maryborough) 1763-1845
It is tempting to turn the concluding part of my study of Wellesley-Pole’s impact upon Ascot into an open letter to the powers that be, in the hope that our man will finally gain the credit he deserves. Instead, however, I want to explain why the invention of tradition was not just about Ascot, but more to do with the relationship between the monarchy and the people.
A Perfect Marriage : the Monarchy & the People
We have seen how Wellesley-Pole’s structural and organisational changes transformed Ascot into the best race track in Britain, and how his rules of racing added a much-needed backbone of professionalism upon which horse racing (as a sport) has thrived. We must must acknowledge that great innovators can make mistakes, & there certainly were one or two wrong decisions made along the way.
Wellesley-Pole’s true legacy, however, must lie in the adoption of ceremonial rituals via the ‘Royal Procession’ – an entirely new creation that gave the instant impression of being a long-held tradition- bringing the people and their King together as one joyous ensemble. It was a simple but brilliant idea that has served us right up to the present time.
To illustrate this better I will firstly examine why ‘Royal Ascot’ meant so much to George IV, and secondly show how it played a significant role in popularising his successor, William IV.
It must be clarified that Ascot was inaugurated under the reign of Queen Anne in 1711. This was more of a permit to hold meetings, and it was not until after 1750 that an annual 4-day meeting was held. The first royal to show a great interest in Ascot Heath was the Duke of Cumberland – who, as Lord Warden of Windsor Forest, was a enthusiastic and regular attendee. King George III also went frequently until his descent in madness in 1810. But it was his two eldest sons George (Prince of Wales) and Frederick (Duke of York) who really took Ascot to their hearts. The Duke of York was perhaps the most pivotal supporter of Ascot in this period as he regularly entered his own horses, sponsored races, and was always on the course. George, on the other hand, was more of a gambler than a participant – so much so that his debts led to exile from Ascot after 1807. Even after he became Prince Regent, George was remained wary of Ascot – principally because he was deeply unpopular and genuinely feared for his safety. The Duke of York by contrast was a soldier, widely respected, and loved by the people – amongst whom he could freely mingle.
Frederick, Duke of York – a massive fan of Ascot Heath Races
So, by 1820 when the Regency ended and George IV became King – Ascot Heath was certainly considered a race meeting frequented by Royalty – but there was no real glue to bind each together into one synonymous concept
George IV’s early reign was marred by mud slinging
It is actually quite incredible to think that speculation about the King’s health was gauged throughout 1830 on the basis of whether he was likely to attend Ascot Races. On April 24th reports that the King spent three hours instructing the Royal Stud groom regarding horses to enter, was taken to mean his illness wasn’t serious. Yet as the weeks passed by and it became clear that George IV would miss Ascot the nation braced itself for bad news. This sense of foreboding reveals the bond that had formed between King and Royal Ascot and can be explained thus:
The press loved to hate the King, and he became withdrawn
The first years of the King’s reign were dogged by social and political unrest, and problems with his estranged wife Queen Caroline of Brunswick. Her trail for adultery, exclusion from the Coronation and sudden death in 1822 combined to make George IV deeply unpopular at all levels of society. Not suprisingly by 1823, the King was largely reclusive – spending months on end at his Royal Cottage in Windsor Park. After his death it was revealed that aside from an occasional visit to the theatre, Ascot Races was the only public engagement at which the King appeared.
Home from home – The Royal Cottage, Windsor Park
Ascot Races was to become a unique and pivotal occasion for the King. His decision to embrace and improve Ascot, by employing Nash then Wellesley-Pole, was a bold move hoping to carve out one small corner of Britain where he could feel at home amongst his subjects. As an excercise in public relations, Wellesley-Pole’s newly devised ‘Royal Procession’ was a masterstroke. By 1826 it was reported
A little before one the heath was well filled, and the eyes of the spectators were then anxiously turned towards the straight mile, and the Royal Cavalcade approached amidst the cheerings of the people. The carriages stopped at the Royal Stand, and his Majesty alighted, and during the whole of the races was at the window, conversing with the noblemen of his suite… & was highly delighted at the affectionate demonstration of loyalty with which his progress was attended. He bowed repeatedly, and smiled upon the multitude in the most affable manner
If the King liked it, the public was just as enamoured, as this slightly offensive 1828 report shows
It cannot be denied that the popularity of these races arises more from the sanction afforded them by his Majesty, than from the mere running. Horses may be seen every day, but Kings are scarce; and the sight of one is something to talk of, and is recompense for an immensity of fatigue and expense. Of the thousands congregated at least three out of every five came to see the King; and it is a fortunate circumstance for his admiring subjects, that the Royal Person is sufficiently bulky not to be mistaken for that of any less personage
When Wellesley-Pole created the Royal Procession, therefore, he did an enormous service to the King, paving the way for his popular acceptance. In one fell swoop, Ascot Heath was permanently transformed into ‘Royal Ascot’ – for the benefit of both instititutions.
It is a curious thing that Ascot proved to be an important turning point for George IV’s successor, William IV (even though Wellesley-Pole was no longer in charge). The new King was never much of a fan of horse-racing and seldom attended Ascot. However, one of his first engagements was at Wellesley-Pole’s second Ascot meeting in August 1830 where he received a rapturous reception.
William IV – the ‘Sailor King’
The following summer was less enjoyable as the King found himself snubbed by the aristocracy, who boycotted Ascot in protest at William IV’s support for the Reform Bill, reportedly ‘evincing the coldness of their feelings towards the Crown’. But when the public heard of this snub they turned out in even greater numbers than before. The Morning Chronicle wrote
It is clear that the expectation of seeing the King is paramount over every other consideration with three-fourths of those who visit Ascot; without this attraction, certain we are that the brilliant company assembled on the Heath would have been fewer by some thousands… the great popularity of the Sovereign excited an interest ensuring a full attendance.
In 1832 the Royal Procession ceremony provided one last final, and unexpected endorsement proving beyond question that Wellesley-Pole’s marriage of Ascot to Monarchy was both secure and permanent. When making his initial public salute at the balcony of the Royal Stand…
A ruffian, in the garb of a sailor suddenly threw a large flint stone directly at the King…striking our venerable Sovereign on the forehead, just above the rim of his hat… the sound was loud and the King fell back one or two paces and exclaimed ‘My God, I am hit’. Happily his Majesty soon relieved all anxiety… and appeared smiling at the front window of the Stand to huge cheers from the populace
So we can see the pivotal role Ascot played in re-connecting one monarch (George IV) with his subjects, and reviving another (William IV) at a time when the ruling elite tried to slap him down. In both instances the Royal Procession provided a perfect platform for the exchange of affection needed between citizens and Kings. Wellesley-Pole therefore created a pageant that elevated Royal Ascot above the status of a mere sporting occasion into a popular celebration of the monarchy.
That Ascot became the venue for a vitally important patriotic affirmation, whilst at the same time undergoing unprecedented improvements in all aspects of horse-racing – is the reason why I think Wellesley-Pole ought to be thanked by today’s owners.
If you have read and enjoyed this, I hope you will try to remember Wellesley-Pole next time you happen to see Ascot’s ‘Royal Procession’. At least that way his hard work will never be forgotten.
The main Ascot website has detailed information on days out at Royal Ascot
I would heartily recommend a stay in Windsor, as besides Ascot there is so much to do in this beautiful town