The history of William Cavendish, 'father' of dressage

Dressage display at Bolsover Castle Credit: ITV Calendar

William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle was a poet, courtier and Royalist general with a love of art and architecture. But he is perhaps best known today for his love of horses and most especially, the art of manege, which evolved into the intricate sport of dressage – as seen in the London Olympics last year.

As the ‘father’ of modern dressage, he brought the art of ‘haute ecole’ or classical dressage to England, refining the balletic movements of leaps, turns and circles developed for the battlefield, into an art form attaining perfection in the communication and unity between horse and rider.

Horses were both a status symbol for 17th century noblemen and a vital part of life - for transport and military use. But they were not necessarily treated with kindness or respect - force was often used to impose man’s will. Contemporary accounts refer to bludgeoning horses, using spurs to draw blood and even thrusting a cat tied to the end of a pole between a horse’s thighs to scratch it, or tying a hedgehog by its foot under the horse’s tail, to encourage it to move forward.

Influenced by the kinder techniques used by the Ottomans in the east, William used the principle of teaching a horse to move away from pressure without being terrified or tormented – the same principle is still used today. He advocated mutual respect between horse and rider and appreciated and cherished the nobility of the horse. His lasting legacy in the form of laying the foundations of modern classical dressage is underpinned by this approach. A widely acknowledged expert in the art of manege, his two manuals of horsemanship are still relevant and the kinder training techniques he used are at the heart of dressage training today.

Born in Handsworth, Yorkshire in December 1593 into the wealthy Cavendish family, William grew up in Nottinghamshire at his family home Welbeck Abbey.

His childhood was carefree and lively and he had an interest in horsemanship and weapons from an early age. Ruled even then by his heart rather than his head, young William is said to have spent an allowance on ‘a singing-boy and a dog for £50’ rather than investing in land. Encouraged to ‘follow his own genius’, rather than academic pursuits, he was sent by his father to train in horsemanship at the royal household, where he and King James I’s son Prince Henry, were taught to ride by French master Monsieur St Antoine.

As a young man William developed his interest in the arts – he travelled throughout Europe, and was influenced by Italian architecture. He married Elizabeth Bassett in 1618 and the family – they had ten children, of which 5 survived – settled in Welbeck Abbey, less than 10 miles from Bolsover Castle. Elizabeth died at Bolsover Castle in 1643.

In 1617 William inherited Bolsover’s Little Castle, built by his father Charles, in the style of a medieval castle and as a place of entertainment. His main home remained Welbeck, but Bolsover was his ‘jewel’; he used it as a place for banqueting, poetry, plays, music,relaxation, and a family retreat.

Initially serving at the court of King James I, William subsequently served King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, building once spectacular state apartments at Bolsover - the now ruined but still impressive Terrace Range. Four years after the lavish entertainments at Welbeck and Bolsover, he was rewarded with governorship of the young Charles II, and taught him to ride.

Before the English Civil War (1642-1651), there was no proper school of horsemanship in England, apart from the Royal Mews. He commissioned plans for a college of horsemanship in London. The ambitious design included stabling for 26 horses and was complete with five of the vertical pillars which were an integral part of his training techniques - to encourage horses to turn in ever-decreasing circles. The college was never built.

A staunch royalist, he was appointed a general and fought with early success for Charles I in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the English Civil War, before losing to roundhead troops at the Battle of Marston Moor. Following his defeat, 50 year-old William fled from England in 1644 – to some criticism. Cromwell went on to beat the royalists at Naseby the following year and Charles I was subsequently executed. William’s efforts as a soldier were derided at the time with Lord Clarendon describing him as: "a very lamentable man, and as fit to be a general as a bishop".

In self-imposed exile, he lived first in Hamburg and then for three years in Paris, where he met his second wife, 30 years his junior, Margaret Lucas. They married in 1645. A colourful character like her husband, she was also a feminist ahead of her time – she was the first woman in Britain to publish books in her own name, including a biography of her husband.

Like Elizabeth before her, she indulged her husband’s roving eye, writing of his philandering ways: “Whether this be so great a crime to condemn him, I will leave to the judgement of young gallants and beautiful ladies.” He was however a loving husband to both his wives and never fully recovered from the sudden death of Margaret in 1673 at the age of 50.

Living away from his country, humiliated by defeat and bitterly disappointed by the turn of events for his cause in the Civil War, he sought solace in the art of horsemanship, where he could excel and make his mark. William moved to Antwerp in 1648, where he lived at the house of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, who had died in 1640. In Paris, like many other fashionable gentlemen, he had studied the popular art of manege – making horses circle leap or kneel like the famous white stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna - at Master de Pluvinel’s Academy.

In Antwerp, Cavendish became regarded as one of Europe’s greatest horsemen of his time. As well as writing and publishing horsemanship manuals whilst living in Antwerp, gentlemen from as far afield as Poland, Sweden, Italy and Spain packed into the riding house he converted from what had been the artist’s studio, to watch him ride. At times the riding house was described as being so full that there was hardly room for him to perform on Le Superbe, his Spanish horse. In partnership, horse and rider performed perfect corvets (prancing movements), voltoes (circles) and terra terra – rocking horse movements performed on the spot.

He returned from Antwerp in 1660 after Charles II’s restoration to the throne, spending his later years focussing on his artistic interests and on his beloved horses at Bolsover. Ultimately, no longer able to ride himself, due to Parkinson’s Disease, he took to watching his horses - including fine horses shipped over from Turkey and North Africa - being trained from the first floor of his Riding House, giving orders from a gallery he had built in the Italian style he discovered in his youth. In testament to the respect and love he had for his horses, a list of 54 of William’s horses survives in his own handwriting, including the most expensive, Le Superbe “the most beautiful I ever saw.”

He was buried in Westminster Abbey.