Rowing: Not The Sport Of Kings

Prince William at Eton c.1992. Perhaps this picture captures the moment when he decided to be (in Eton speak) a ‘dry’ and not a ‘wet’ bob i.e. to make cricket and not rowing his summer game.
Prince William at Eton c.1992. Perhaps this picture captures the moment when he decided to be (in Eton speak) a ‘dry’ and not a ‘wet’ bob i.e. to make cricket and not rowing his summer game.

Tim Koch writes from London:

About 360,000 babies were born around the world today, on 2 May, but perhaps the one that generated the most interest was the child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, better known as Prince William and the former Kate Middleton. While the birth was announced by e-mail and on the royal Twitter and Instagram accounts, there was also the somewhat restrained traditional paper announcement placed on an easel outside Buckingham Palace:

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a daughter at 08.34 am. Her Royal Highness and her child are both doing well.

The newborn immediately became fourth in the line of succession to the British throne, pushing her uncle, Prince Harry, down to fifth in line. While interest seemed to centre on the baby’s sex, weight and name, HTBS readers are probably more concerned to know if she will be a rower or a sculler. Sadly, historical evidence seems to suggest neither is likely.

The then Kate Middleton showing a little more enthusiasm for sitting in a boat than her future husband pictured above. Paddling, of course, is not rowing.
The then Kate Middleton showing a little more enthusiasm for sitting in a boat than her future husband pictured above. Paddling, of course, is not rowing.

As the top picture shows, Prince William, like all boys at Eton school, was given the chance to try rowing and sculling but it seems that he much preferred soccer and rugby. The same applies to his brother, Prince Harry, and there appear to be very few members of the British Royal Family who have taken an active interest in the sport. It is true that they will attend rowing events as part of their Royal duties but I am sure that there is a more genuine enthusiasm from the older ones for sporting occasions involving horses and from the younger ones for contests featuring popular ball games. There was a rumour that ‘Kate and Wills’ had been seen sculling together in a double, but I think that this picture is a fake.

Princess Margaret talking to her then fiancé, Antony Armstrong-Jones, aboard the Cambridge launch during the 1960 Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race. Oxford won.
Princess Margaret talking to her then fiancé, Antony Armstrong-Jones, aboard the Cambridge launch during the 1960 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race. Oxford won.

Probably the member of the Royal Family who had the most impressive involvement in rowing was a commoner who married into the House of Windsor. In 1960, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowden, married the Queen’s only sister, Princess Margaret. They were both rather strong-willed and open-minded people and they had a somewhat tempestuous relationship but for a time they were Britain’s most glamorous couple. In the 1950s, the Princess had been at the centre of the so-called ‘Margaret Set’, a group of aristocrats who seemed to spend their lives in the pursuit of pleasure. She married Armstrong-Jones just as the 1960s started to swing and her Guardian obituary noted:

The Snowdons seemed the ideal cipher for an age that was promoting style above status but had not yet completely kicked deference. In the early days of their marriage Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon broke new ground socially, making friendships, or at least acquaintance, with all the usual 60s names, Nureyev, Peter Sellers, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, and the more flaky, including John Bindon, a minor actor of East End sensitivities famed most for an interesting trick involving beer glasses with handles and a private part of his anatomy.

Years before mixing with this eclectic crowd, Armstrong-Jones had been to Eton and then to Jesus College, Cambridge where he coxed the Light Blues to a 3 1/2 length victory in the 1950 Boat Race. Perhaps he needed even greater skills than are normally required to navigate the Putney to Mortlake course as, in his book The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1983), Chris Dodd noted that the Cambridge boat was nicknamed the ‘Banham Bombshell’ and that it ‘didn’t hold in the water all that well’ and that Cambridge ‘were frightened of going up Beverley Brook’ (the creek that runs at 90° to the course at the end of Putney Embankment). However, Armstrong-Jones not only successfully steered the boat but, according to a recent biography by Anne de Courcy, he designed a new rudder for it as well.

Antony (‘Tony’) Armstrong-Jones, later the First Earl of Snowden, in his Jesus College rowing cap
Antony (‘Tony’) Armstrong-Jones, later the First Earl of Snowden, in his Jesus College rowing cap.

Armstrong-Jones clearly maintained his interest in rowing and he and Princess Margaret were in the Cambridge launch for the 1960 Boat Race (evidenced both by the picture above and by British Pathe) and he also followed the 1965 Race (though Pathe only filmed his nephew, Prince Charles, in the BBC launch)  In 1964, the Snowdens and the Queen Mother visited Henley for its 125th year and to witness the Harvard crew of 1914 rowing over. Again, the wonderful Pathe newsreel was on hand to capture all of this for posterity.

I have found a couple of pictorial references to Princess Margaret’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, and rowing which are interesting enough but I do not think that they can be taken as an indication of him possessing any real interest in the sport.

Queen Victoria and family, 1850. The nine year old Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, is in the skiff adorned with the Prince of Wales’s feathers. How often he used it is open to speculation.
Queen Victoria and family, 1850. The nine year old Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, is in the skiff adorned with the Prince of Wales’s feathers. How often he used it is open to speculation.
‘A Rowing Type’ by F.H. Manby (1880). This caricature of the increasingly portulent forty-year-old Edward was presumably some kind of humorous or political reference. I can find no evidence that he engaged in any sporting activity beyond hunting, shooting, fishing and keeping mistresses.
‘A Rowing Type’ by F.H. Manby (1880). This caricature of the increasingly portulent forty-year-old Edward was presumably some kind of humorous or political reference. I can find no evidence that he engaged in any sporting activity beyond hunting, shooting, fishing and keeping mistresses.

In 1883, the Illustrated London News showed Edward VII’s eldest son enjoying rowing whilst a student at his father’s old Cambridge college, Trinity. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, was first in line of succession to the British throne but he died before this father and so it was his younger brother who eventually became King, taking the title George V (and also marrying his late brother’s fiancée). The Prince’s Wikipedia entry notes that Albert Victor ‘….showed little interest in the intellectual atmosphere (of Trinity College) and was excused from examinations, though he did become involved in undergraduate life’. Clearly, this included rowing on the Cam.

The Illustrated London News, 10 November 1883, ‘Prince Albert Victor at Cambridge University’.
The Illustrated London News, 10 November 1883, ‘Prince Albert Victor at Cambridge University’.

Until recently, I had thought that this was the sum total of ‘rowing Royalty’ stories but I then discovered another heir to the British throne who had an interest in the sport – albeit a frustrated one. On the website of Magdalen (pronounced ‘Maudlin’) College, Oxford, I found a post in a series entitled ‘Treasure of the Month’. The ‘Treasure’ for May 2014 was a photograph album belonging to one of Magdalen College Boat Club’s most successful coxes, Henry Bensley ‘Ben’ Wells, who coxed three University Boat Race victories (1911–1913) and won an Olympic Gold Medal with the Leander Eight at the 1912 Stockholm Games. I intend to return to the full story of Wells and his photographs at a later date, but for now I want to look at just one of his pictures.

Oxford students following a race during Eights Week, 1913. Picture reproduced by kind permission of Magdalen College.
Oxford students following a race during Eights Week, 1913. Picture reproduced by kind permission of Magdalen College.

The Magdalen website explains the significance of the above picture:

Wells’ prowess (as a cox) attracted the attention of a number of admirers, including a young man known to Wells as Eddie, whose own ambitions to be a cox had been scotched by his parents. Eddie, known to society as HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, became good friends with Wells and the two men kept up a correspondence for some years after leaving Oxford. The College Archives hold 15 letters to Wells from Edward.

Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King George V, known to his family as David, would become Edward VIII (albeit for less than a year) and, after abdicating the throne in 1936 to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, then became the Duke of Windsor. He is the young man in the trilby hat and bow tie, unnoticed in the excited crowd. He had entered Magdalen in October 1912 as one of the processes of preparing him for his future duties as King. ’Underprepared intellectually’ to read for a degree, he was given tutorials by the college president who later commented that ‘bookish he will never be’. However, unlike when his grandfather (Edward VII), was at Oxford, students did not have to stand when he entered a lecture hall and generally he was treated as a normal junior member of college (though he did employ a valet and was also the first Magdalen undergraduate to have a private bathroom). The website ‘Edwardian Promenade’ has an extract from Edward, Prince of Wales: An Authentic Biography (1921) by G. Ivy Sanders that covers Edward’s time at Oxford. It includes this:

He resided in college rooms, dined in hall, or at one of the University clubs, and mixed freely with his fellow undergraduates. For nearly two years he played football for the college second eleven, became a private in the Officer Training Corps, hunted, golfed, ran with the beagles, and drove his own motor car, not always with strict regard to speed limits. Although he did not take an active part in rowing, he was as keen as anyone among the crowd which followed his college crews along the towpath.

Edward, the student Prince, who left Oxford after eight terms without any academic qualifications. To be fair to him, when he was told that he would be going to Magdalen, he protested that he had ‘neither the mind nor will for books’ and claimed that his years at university ‘would be wasted’ and initially thought it ‘a dreary chore to be finished with the least effort and as quickly as possible’.
Edward, the student Prince, who left Oxford after eight terms without any academic qualifications. To be fair to him, when he was told that he would be going to Magdalen, he protested that he had ‘neither the mind nor will for books’ and claimed that his years at university ‘would be wasted’ and initially thought it ‘a dreary chore to be finished with the least effort and as quickly as possible’.

Magdalen has put online some brief summaries of the correspondence that Edward sent to Wells and they included frequent references to rowing. In February 1913, he talks about Torpids, in March he reports on a Bump Supper, in July, he discusses ‘the exploits of the Leander crew’ and in March 1914 he asks about Wells coxing OUBC. What particularly interested me was the website’s assertion that Edward’s ambitions to be a cox ‘had been scotched by his parents’, that is by George V and Queen Mary. My reaction to this was one of surprise.

King George, a peculiar and pedantic man, was a Victorian in his attitudes and he had ‘little sympathy for experiences different from his own’. Even at the age of 18 when Edward went up to Oxford, I imagine that the heir to the throne was already developing the attitudes and lifestyle that would eventually see him become one of the leading personalities of the inter-war ‘Jazz Age’. He was beginning to inhabit a modern world which his Father could not begin to comprehend. Things like his clothes and his music were anathema to George but even worse was his dislike of formality and protocol and his desire to put personal satisfaction before duty. Thus, I would have thought that the King and Queen would have in fact encouraged their son’s interest in a respectable, traditional and ‘manly’ sport such as rowing, one that required virtues that George approved of such as discipline and commitment and one that would have seen Edward inhabiting boatclubs rather than nightclubs.

Edward on the Isis – but in a punt, not a rowing boat.
Edward on the Isis – but in a punt, not a rowing boat.

I contacted Mark Blandford-Baker, the author of Upon The Elysian Stream: 150 Years of Magdalen College Boat Club, Oxford (2008)*, to find out more about the Royal opposition to Edward coxing. Mark held that the evidence for this came from correspondence held in Magdalen’s archives and that the Palace was concerned about ‘security’. I commented that Royal security was not very tight in those days and there seemed to be no worry about the Prince’s safety on the football field or golf course. Mark replied:

It is curious but I am not sure what the real issue might have been – he was the ideal size to be a cox! He did follow the Boat Race on the umpire’s launch one year and maybe the Palace officials took fright at the rough water…… So it may have been safety from the elements rather than troublemakers.

This is very possible, though he followed the Boat Race in April 1911, which was 18 months before he went to Oxford. Perhaps there was a fear of physical injury if he took part in ‘bump’ racing, something that looks more dangerous than it usually proves to be. Probably we may never know exactly why Edward was prevented from becoming active in the boat club but we can speculate that, if he had joined MCBC and if he had eventually surrendered to the costs and disciplines that high performance coxing demands, whether this would have made him a different person who, later during the Abdication Crisis, may have taken different decisions about duty and sacrifice.

Pic 8
1936 – The Year of the Three Kings. Image: Wikipedia.org

* Upon The Elysian Stream: 150 Years of Magdalen College Boat Club, Oxford by Mark Blandford-Baker is a lavishly illustrated book of 300 pages which covers developments within the sport as well as the history of MCBC. It is available from the Oxford University Shop at £20. This is a £15 reduction from its original price – which is not a reflection on the quality of this splendid publication!

Editor’s note: While the British monarchs seem not to have been rowers, some Scandinavian kings and princes did show interest in the sport, i.e. the Swedish Prince Gustaf Adolf, heir to the Swedish throne, rowed at Lundsbergs boarding school. He died in an airplane crash in 1947. As a young prince, King of Frederik IX of Denmark was a member of one of the rowing clubs in Copenhagen.

5 comments

  1. A really fascinating article re Royalty and Rowing with some beautiful pictures. I assume most of it was written before the latest Royal birth. I would be interested to know what gave the idea for writing it.
    Re Princess Margaret my late mother worked as a book keeper at what I think was called the Kensington Gore which had a basement Elizabethan themed restaurant.
    Apparently Princess Margaret often hired a room there for very lively private parties.

  2. A quick bout of googling reveals the Gore Hotel was owned by Robin Howard a descendant of Stanley Baldwin. Also the Rolling Stones used the Elizabethsn rooms for filming to promote their 60s Satanic Majesties album.
    I had meals in the Elizabethan rooms. We ate with our fingers from wooden platters and all the staff wore Elizabethan dress and minstrels played.

  3. Dear Clive,

    Thank you for the kind remarks. The idea was inspired by finding the picture of Prince Willian sculling and then collecting rowing royalty stories as I found them. The royal birth seemed as good a time as any to post them. It has produced a few responses which will result in one or two other posts in the future. Some people have asked for more details of John Bindon’s party trick. The answer is five half-pint pots.

    Tim.

  4. Another example of royalty (though relatively minor royalty) rowing was Prince William of Gloucester, a grandson of George V. He attended Magdalene College, Cambridge after Eton, and read History. He also was in crews that won blades in at least two sets of May Bumps, in 1961 and 1962, in his college’s 5th and 3rd boats respectively- his commemorative oars, which list him as “William of Gloucester,” were recently sold at Christie’s: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/prince-william-of-gloucesters-two-by-e-4654528-details.aspx

  5. The Japanese Emperor was a very keen and good cox. Also the current Prince of Monaco rowed and is a keen follower of the sport, often attending Henley and recently donating prizes to the event. Obviously he has been interested in it as he comes from one of the worlds great rowing dynasties on his mothers side of the family.

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