Whether embarking on a fox hunt or playing croquet at a garden party, the British aristocrats who lived in the era depicted in Downton Abbey made the most of their leisure pursuits
The classic British image of the sporting gentleman—perhaps dressed in tweed for a fox hunt or donning whites for the tennis lawn—has given way to one depicting the hysteria and hooliganism surrounding Premier League soccer. But the emergence of popular TV series Downton Abbey, even across the pond in the United States, has led to a renewed interest in British aristocratic culture and, by extension, a revival of the genteel sporting life.
An elegantly dressed aristocrat working on his archery skills
While sports in the United Kingdom date back to the invasions of the Romans, Saxons and Normans, initially, they were about aggression; rougher athletics, such as rugby and soccer, were born of this combative tradition. Until the 19th century, the upper classes would not deign to participate in such violent endeavors, but over time, “out-of-door” pastimes began to surface. Such pursuits as archery and shooting required wide swaths of countryside, so they appealed directly to wealthy landowners.
It was during the reign of Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, that sports came into vogue among the aristocracy. During this period, the upper classes had the financial means to engage in leisurely activities. What pastimes a person favored, however, were emblematic of his or her social standing. During the Edwardian era, from 1901 to 1910, when sporting grew in popularity, the nobility focused its energies on tennis and yachting, while the working class was more likely to play soccer.
Downton Abbey begins in the period following King Edward’s reign. What kinds of athletic endeavors would the gentry of those times have partaken in? Here, we’ve profiled five sports that British lords, ladies, dukes and duchesses would have enjoyed.
While archery has existed since the dawn of civilization, it became popular among the aristocracy during the Victorian era. In fact, Queen Victoria even participated in archery as a pastime. Many modern-day archery clubs had their beginnings on English country lawns in the mid-1880s; it was indeed a sport for the countryside, because setting up an archery field required ample terrain. And, as with croquet, archery was an egalitarian activity: Women could shoot alongside men and were allowed membership in private archery clubs.
Croquet was considered “too delicate, too pretty, too refined” to be referred to as a sport, a term that implied the roughness and violence of rugby and soccer.
Introduced in England in 1856, croquet was considered suitable for women because it didn’t require much physical strength. Among the first of the mixed-sex sports, it was more of a social outing than an athletic activity; garden parties among members of the British aristocracy became known as croquet parties. According to the 1868 tome British Sports and Pastimes, croquet was considered “too delicate, too pretty, too refined” to be referred to as a sport, a term that implied the roughness and violence of rugby and soccer. Croquet took England by storm in the 1860s and then spread overseas.
Begun in 17th-century Britain, foxhunting in its current form is tied to aristocratic social rituals. Given the need for elaborate clothing, horses and well-bred hound dogs, only extremely wealthy individuals could participate in the sport. The mission of a traditional hunt was to track, chase and capture (and sometimes kill) a fox, with each member of the group playing a specific role: The master—mounted on horseback and donning a scarlet coat, breeches and laceless boots—commanded the troop, the huntsman was responsible for directing the hounds and the terrier man controlled the dogs (which burrowed into dens to retrieve the foxes). These hunters dressed mostly in tweed from the Isle of Harris in the Hebrides. Embellishments included arm patches and poacher pockets, among other accoutrements proper for an afternoon of hunting.
The Earl of Craven enjoying a shooting outing on his country estate
Hampton Court Palace was the site of England’s earliest tennis court, erected in 1528. But it was during the Victorian era that the modern version of lawn tennis became popular among the elite. Men in particular developed a taste for the sport because it required more physical exertion than croquet and archery (both popular among women). In the late 19th century, several tennis clubs—places for the upper classes to play a match and socialize, as well—popped up throughout the United Kingdom. (Wimbledon, that most famous of English tennis tournaments, was established in 1877 as an event at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.) By the 1880s, lawn tennis had become the rage at fashionable summer resorts, and many magazines of the time devoted pages to proper attire, which included cable-knit jumpers (or sweaters) and long trousers for men and, for women, long dresses, with the addition of ornate and decorative lacework around the collar and wrists.
Starting in the mid-19th century, many wealthy landowners would take their guests out shooting with elaborate entourages. These Victorian and, later, Edwardian hunting weekends, known as Saturday-to-Monday house parties, became legendary social events within elite circles. Because only landowners of a certain social status had sufficient means to partake in this pastime, it was the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Pheasant and wild game were considered especially prized targets; hunting and shooting them became known as the sport of kings and aristocrats. But killing animals was not a prerequisite for this activity: The first clay targets were developed in England in the 1880s.
A longtime contributor to RL Magazine, FARHAD HEYDARI is the London-based international managing editor of the magazines Centurion and Departures in Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Latin America.
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