As Ascot approaches its 300th birthday, John Blake looks at the life and times of the racecourse’s founder; Queen Anne.
On 11th August 2011, it will be 300 years to the day that Ascot held its first race meeting. Tradition has it that, whilst on a leisurely ride from Windsor Castle, Queen Anne had the notion that the land at East Cote looked like the perfect spot for horses to canter at full stretch. Over time, East Cote became Ascot and the rest, as they say, is history!
The first race was Her Majesty’s Plate worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of six. This contest bore little resemblance to the racing you will see at Ascot today. The seven horses were all English Hunters, quite different to the speedy thoroughbreds on show at this year’s Royal Meeting. The race consisted of three separate heats which were over four miles long, so the winner would have been a horse with tremendous stamina. Sadly, there is no record of the winner of the first race.
Queen Anne gets a pretty rough ride in the history books, portrayed as a monarch beset by personal ill-health and political skulduggery. However, without her vision there would be no Ascot Racecourse, or Royal Ascot for that matter. There are also plenty of other reasons why we should appreciate Queen Anne; a monarch whose erstwhile contribution to this country is too often overlooked by historians.
Anne was born in St. James Palace on 6th February 1665, the year the Great Plague terrorised the country. It could be argued that this fateful omen shaped the rest of her life. One cannot help but be touched by the way Anne dealt with the trials and tribulations that life threw at her. As a child, Anne suffered from an eye infection that saw her shipped off to live with her grandmother Henrietta Maria of France and, in her adult years, she was ravaged by gout that turned to erysipelas and eventually killed her on 1st August 1714; aged just 49.
On 28th July 1683, Anne married Prince George of Denmark. With her husband, she suffered the trauma of four miscarriages, seven still births and six children who would not live to celebrate their second birthday, with the exception of William Duke of Gloucester, a sickly child who tragically contracted smallpox on his eleventh birthday and subsequently died. This lack of an heir would lead to turmoil after her death including two Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1719.
Following the death of her father, William III in March 1702, Anne became embroiled in the attempt to unify England and Scotland. When the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701, the English Parliament saw fit not to consult with the Parliament of Scotland. In retaliation, the Scots passed an act decreeing that only the government north of the border could elect the next Scottish monarch. To unravel this political conundrum, Anne appointed commissioners to arbitrate between the English and the Scots, resulting in the Articles of Union which eventually united the two realms.
The reign of Queen Anne saw the development of today’s two party political system. Similar to the present day, the political merry-go-round was not short of intrigue and machinations with Whigs and Tories jockeying for position. Although the monarchy’s power was stripped following the days of republican Commonwealth sixty or so years earlier, Anne found herself at the centre of a political power struggle in February 1708 when the Duke of Marlborough (of Battle of Blenheim fame) and Sidney Godolphin all but forced her to sack the then Secretary of State, Robert Harley, over the leaking of documents from his department (sounds familiar, doesn’t it!).
Heartbreak struck again in October the same year when Anne’s beloved husband, Prince George of Denmark, and Lord High Admiral, died. Anne was devastated by the loss, but ever resourceful and pragmatic - as well as not trusting any politician to do the job properly - she appointed herself the head of the Admiralty.
The reign of Anne is also notable for the advance of artistic, literary and scientific achievements. In architecture, Sir John Vanburgh constructed impressive landmarks such as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. The age saw eminent writers such as Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, flourish. Her name is also associated with the world’s first copyright law known as the Statute of Anne, which granted exclusive rights to authors as opposed to printers.
The Queen Anne architectural style became popular in the late 1800s, the Bluecoat Building in Liverpool being a prime example, with her name harking back to a sense of old world elegance and extravagant, ornate detail.
Queen Anne’s influence also extended overseas; the American city of Annapolis, Maryland, which originally bore several other names, was given its present name in 1694 by Sir Francis Nicholson, in honour of the then Princess Anne. Princess Anne County, Virginia, was named before her accession to the throne and Queen Anne's County in Maryland was named for her in 1706. Furthermore, upon its capture from the French in 1710, Port-Royal in Nova Scotia was renamed Annapolis Royal.
Rather glibly, we like to think that Queen Anne’s greatest achievement was the creation of the world’s most famous racecourse and her legacy is in the millions of racehorses, owners, trainers, jockeys and racegoers that have graced East Cote for the past three hundred years. So, in 2011 let’s raise our glasses to the ever resourceful, visionary and resilient Queen Anne.
If you would like to share your memories of past visits to Ascot with us, please write to 1711 to 2011 Memories, Ascot Racecourse, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7JX or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. All photographs will be returned.