I first learned a little of the history of the Royal Ascot when I was doing research for one of my books, His Captive Lady. Harry, my hero, and his friend Ethan, breed, train and race horses, and I'd planned to have some scenes take place at the races. Horse racing was a popular entertainment in the Regency but it's not often seen in books, and Ascot has always been a traditionally elegant and fashionable event. However, as often happens, that book took another direction and those scenes never did eventuate, so I'm using some of my research for another purpose.
The Royal Ascot Meeting is one of the premier race meetings of Europe and has been for generations. You might be wondering why the 'Royal' in the title. Well, it's an event that has been closely connected to the Royal family ever since its inception in 1711, when Queen Anne commissioned a course to be laid out where horses could "gallop at a stretch" about six miles from Windsor Castle. She further offered a prize of "Her Majesty's Plate" then worth a hundred guineas — a great deal of money in those days. (A guinea is one pound and one shilling, or twenty-one shillings.)
Ever since, the monarch and other members of the royal family have attended the Royal Ascot, turning it into an enormously fashionable event. Each day starts with the famed Royal Procession, where at 2pm, the royal family arrive at the racecourse in an open, horse-drawn carriage, making their way from the Golden Gates to the Royal Enclosure.
You might be interested to know this tradition was begun by George IV — better known to Regency readers as the Prince of Wales, the Regent of the Regency, "Prinny" to his friends. In 1825, when he was king, he and the rest of his party, in four carriages, drove up the centre of the racecourse in front of the crowds, and the tradition has continued to this day.
The Queen is very keen on horse racing and attends each year, rarely missing a day, and is usually accompanied by the other members of her family. This of course means that its a very popular day for royal-watchers, and the press keeps a close eye on the royal boxes.
Racing is known as "the sport of kings" for a good reason: the Queen owns many racehorses, and so far has had 20 winners at Ascot. The Queen Mother was just as keen. Before he became a writer, bestselling crime writer Dick Francis was a champion jockey and rode for the The Queen Mother from 1953 to 1957.
Significant races have been named after various royal personages; The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (run in July) and the Queen Anne Stakes, the King's Stand Stakes, St. James's Palace Stakes, Prince of Wales's Stakes and the Queen Mary Stakes.
There's a strict dress code for the Royal Enclosure: ladies must wear a formal day dress, and a hat or fascinator. No bare shoulders or midriffs. Gentlemen are expected to wear black or grey morning dress and a top hat. During the Regency, Beau Brummell, arbiter of fashion and still a close friend of the Prince Regent at that point, decreed that men of elegance should wear 'waisted black coats and white cravats with pantaloons.' The gentleman on our right, however, is dressed in morning dress from 1901.
Strict dress codes don't stop people being outrageous however, and huge, bizarre and fabulous hats are particularly featured on Ladies' Day. I just love this red hat below. Click here for a glimpse of some of the fabulous and outrageous hats that have appeared at the Royal Ascot.
I'm not much of a one for going to the races, but I think if I were in England next week, I'd make a point of going to the Royal Ascot, for the fashion, the tradition, the elegance and the fun. Call it research. <G>
So what about you? Are you a racegoer? A Royal watcher or observer of the rich and famous? A lover of outrageous hats? Would you go to the Royal Ascot or give it a miss?