Romantics never tire of the vision of Cinderella, off to the ball in a splendid horse-drawn coach, and nobody brings fairy-tale scenes to life like the British, whose knack for pomp and circumstance makes a royal occasion a sight to behold. That’s why royal-watchers everywhere are gearing up for one of the biggest celebrations of them all: a royal wedding.
Queen Elizabeth names all the horses. This horse is called Tolerance.
The stalls on the left house horses while the stalls on the right display small historical artifacts.
The massive Gold State Coach was built in 1762 and weighs four tons.
A team of Cleveland Bays from the Royal Mews.
On April 29 HRH Prince William of Wales will marry Catherine "Kate" Middleton at London’s Westminster Abbey. The event is the most anticipated wedding since Prince William’s parents, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and the late Lady Diana Spencer wed in 1981.
Unlike previous royal brides, Kate will travel to the wedding by car. The royal couple will then journey from Westminster Abbey to the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace by horse-drawn carriage.
Horses and carriages play a role in nearly every important British royal ceremony–so much so that the royal stables and carriage houses, called the Royal Mews, are situated beside Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of the monarch. As you might expect, all that gleaming horseflesh, sparkling harnesses, and dazzling coachwork require much care. Here’s a peek at what goes on behind the scenes.
The Royal Mews
"Mews" originally meant a falconry, so named for the royal falcons’ molting or "mewing" of feathers. By 1527, the Royal Mews were being used as horse stables; in 1825 the mews were relocated from nearby Charing Cross to new buildings in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, where they stand today.
The Royal Mews comprises stabling for the current string of 34 horses (a mixture of straight stalls and "loose boxes," or box stalls), housing for the royal carriages and state motor vehicles, a spacious indoor arena, a large quadrangle, and apartments for staffers or families with connections to the mews. Visitors can tour the facility to view the vehicles and some of the horses. Although everyday activities, such as putting to harness and cooling out, are conducted away from public view, you might be lucky enough to see a vehicle and horses leaving for or returning from a training session on the London streets or in nearby Hyde Park.
Queen Elizabeth II is an avid horsewoman and takes a keen interest in the occupants royal stables’ occupants, naming each horse herself.
Nearly all of the royal carriage horses are either Windsor Greys or Cleveland Bays. The former is not a breed but a type: gray in color, at least 16.1 hands, of sturdy warmblood-type conformation with possibly a bit of draft thrown in, and with the all-important placid temperament. The Greys are named for Windsor, where they were originally stabled.
The Queen breeds Cleveland Bays, which are a light draft breed, uniformly bay in color with black points and similar in size to the Greys. Most of the bay horses at the Royal Mews are Cleveland Bays or part-bred Cleveland Bays, aside from a couple of bay warmbloods. As with the Greys, "bombproof" temperaments are a must, and all of the horses receive intense training to desensitize them to everything from cheering throngs to flapping flags.
The royal carriage horses-to-be are broke to saddle around age 4 and come to the Royal Mews for their introduction to harness and their training, which takes about two years. During their approximately ten-year careers they receive two daily morning outings, sometimes first under saddle and then later in harness. They might be driven in the indoor arena or on the streets. Grooming and cleaning of harness, both time-consuming activities, occupy the stable staff’s midday hours. Then come afternoon chores and feeding. Retired horses live out their days in the English countryside.
The four-wheeled residents of the Royal Mews are nearly as spectacular as the four-footed. Visitors often marvel at the ornate coaches, each with its own history and significance. Royal wedding fans might recognize the Glass Coach, which carried Princess Diana and many royal brides before her to their weddings. The real show stopper is the world-famous Gold State Coach, which has been used for openings of Parliament, for coronations (including Queen Elizabeth II’s), and for the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee celebrations. Built in 1762 for King George III, it is gilded, weighs nearly four tons, and is drawn by eight horses at a walk only. No whip (driver) sits in the Gold State Coach; instead, the horses are controlled by postillions (riders).
The Royal Mews today also houses the royal limousines, mostly Rolls-Royce Phantoms. The oldest model, known as Rolls-Royce No. 3, is a 1950 Phantom IV in a hue called Royal Claret.
Horses, riding, and driving are important British traditions. The Royal Mews not only houses living history in the royal horses, but also preserves priceless artifacts–the coaches themselves. The slow-moving horse-drawn vehicles afford spectators a better and more lingering view of the royals. On April 29 the world will be watching eagerly as Will and Kate re-enact a horse-drawn fairy-tale scene for the ages.