“To See a Fine Lady on a White Horse”

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes. [I. Opie and P. Opie. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997. pp. 65–7.]

Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross” is an English language nursery rhyme connected with the English town Banbury in Oxfordshire. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 21143. Yet, who is the “fine lady” of which the rhyme speaks? Most scholars agree the lady in question is Lady Celia Fiennes, who supposedly rode a white horse from Broughton Castle, her home, to Banbury Cross for the medieval celebration of May Morning.

Lady Celia Fiennes is best remembered as the foremost female travel writer of her day. She was born 7 June 1662. Celia’s parents were known for their anti-monarchical stance, and their children were raised with those beliefs. Her grandfather, 1st Lord Saye and Sele led the House of Lords during the Puritan cause against the monarchy from 1628 to 1642. Although her pedigree was extraordinary, it was her travels, more specifically the travel journey she wrote, which presented her a “name” in British history, for her accounts were more than a bit remarkable for both their time and for her gender. Her “horseback” journeys provides us significant information on British life in the 17th and 18th centuries. She traveled about England and kept a journal of the places she visited and what she saw at each stop. In 1888, the journal was published, with the assistance of her family members, as “Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary.”

“…thence to Winchester; in one mile off the town is Woolsey that was formerly the Bishops house, a large rambling building like a little town, this is on Maudline Hill whereon a considerable Faire is kept neare Michelmas, the traffique mostly hopps which that Country produceth good and cheese; its noted for a vast many of waines from severall parts especially from the West Country.”

Encyclopedia.com tells us, “Sources vary on what year Fiennes began her treks into greater England. The first noted date of departure ranges from 1685 to 1690—making her age at the onset of her travels anywhere between twenty–three and twenty–eight. This discrepancy is attributed to a disconnect between her largely undated notes and posthumous attempts by scholars to establish a timeline. All agree that she ended her roving in 1702, having at that time traversed every county in England as well as having engaged in additional short explorations of portions of Scotland and Wales.”

Fiennes’s biographical entry in The Dictionary of National Biography Missing Persons described her unique attributes as a travel writer in a genre and country that normally defers to the culturally entrenched, “She was interested in the modern rather than the ancient, preferring Nottingham to York … formal gardens and waterworks to ancient houses. The sharpness of her observations on numerous aspects of contemporary life has made her journal a prime source for social and economic historians.”

Celia traveled to every county in England, her journeys basically encompassing the years of 1684-1703. One must recall this was 100 years before the stagecoach. She rode each of those miles, riding side saddle. Her earliest travels were to the southern shires, where she visited Stonehenge, Bath, and Salisbury. In 1698, she undertook what she called her “Great Journey” when she traveled to Newcastle, the Lake District, Durham, Gloucester, Bristol and to “Land’s End,” or rather to Cornwall.

Like Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Lady Celia was more interested in the land and the people than in British history. She mentions the historical sites she visited, but Lady Celia demonstrates a keen interest in the land, the crops, in mining and industry, in local foods and drinks, in the conditions of the roads she traveled and the houses in which she stayed, which does address the history of the times. “Through her words we get a glimpse of 17th century everyday life. We might never have thought about what it would be like to travel the country without signposts but she highlights them as a notable feature remarking on ‘posts and hands pointing to each road with the names of the great towns or market towns that it leads to’.” [Wiltshire and Swindon History Center]

Other Sources:

Please have a look at History of Horseback’s tale of Lady Celia’s travels. You will fine it HERE.

You may read Lady Celia’s journal HERE.

You might also find Derek J. Taylor’s book helpful. Discover it HERE.

In 1697, a 34-year-old woman mounted her horse and set off on a 3,000-mile journey which over two summers would take her to every county in England. Her name was Celia Fiennes. It was a time when women didn’t do such things. It could be gruelling, unhealthy and dangerous. As she discovered, most roads were unsigned, marshy tracks, lodgings could be filthy and vermin-ridden, and highwaymen lay in wait for the unwary.

Luckily for us, Celia Fiennes kept a detailed diary about the places she saw and the people she met. She reports on the brutal justice system and political shenanigans of the time, and is fascinated by industry and commerce – workshops, shipping and especially coal-pits and tin mines. What she tells us is significant as the Industrial Revolution would soon change England forever.

Yet this remarkable woman and her story have, until now, been largely neglected.

In England From a Side-Saddle, historian and journalist Derek J. Taylor seeks to put that right. As we follow the route Celia Fiennes took, we see through her eyes an England of 320 years ago, and learn of the courage, determination and curiosity of one woman who was centuries ahead of her time.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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