Fitzwilliam Darcy and the Godolphin Arabian

Sea Biscuit, Man o' War, War Admiral…these are the names of some of the most famous race horses of all time and while there may be six degrees of separation for everything and everyone, at first glance, there may not seem to be much connection between them to Jane Austen. My daughter (along with at least half of the seven year old girl population) is currently fascinated by horses and I recently picked up Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind for her to read. The story is a fictionalized account of the Godolphin Arabian. I had not realized that it was a true story when I first began to peruse it, but I quickly became engrossed in the story, which reads like any fairy tale (and, of course, has a happy ending!) The Godolphin Arabian, painted by George Stubbs, some time before 1806. According to Wikipedia, "the Godolphin Arabian (c. 1724 – 1753), was an Arabian horse who was one of three stallions that were the founders of the modern Thoroughbred horse racing bloodstock (the other two are the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk). He was given his name for his best-known owner, Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. The Godolphin Arabian was foaled about 1724 in Yemen, but moved several times before reaching England. At some time in his early years, he was exported, probably via Syria, to the stud of the Bey of Tunis. From there he was given to Louis XV of France in 1730. It is believed he was a present from monarch to monarch. Even so, he was not valued by his new French owner, and it is believed he was used as a carthorse. The horse was then imported from France by Edward Coke and sent to his stud at Longford Hall, Derbyshire where he remained until the death of his owner in 1733. He was bequeathed to Roger Williams, "proprietor of the St. James's Coffee House", who inherited Coke's stallions. He was bought by the 2nd Earl of Godolphinand placed at his stud at Babraham, Cambridgeshire until his death on Christmas Day 1753. The Godolphin Arabian is described as being of a brown bay colour with some white on the off heel behind. He stood at 15 hands (60 inches, 152 cm) and was distinguished by an unnaturally high crest which is noticeable from portraits of the horse. Most of his immediate offspring were also bay. Controversy exists over the ancestry of the Godolphin Arabian; some writers referred to him as a Barb, because of his believed country of origin, Tunisia, on the Barbary Coast. Whyte in the 1840 History of the British Turf, refers to the horse as
"The Godolphin Barb, or as he has been improperly called, the Godolphin Arabian" (emphasis added) before further clarifying, "He was long considered an Arabian, although his points resembled more those of the highest breed of Barbs."
However, portraits, showing a horse with a high-carried tail and dished profile, features that differentiate Arabians from Barbs, lead modern experts to believe he was more likely an Arabian. The confusion is understandable, but while the breeds have some characteristics in common and are distantly related, their phenotypes are quite distinct. There was also an argument raised that he was actually a Turkoman horse, merely called an Arabian in order to raise the stud fee. However, it is most widely believed that he was an Arabian or had primarily Arabian lineage. The Earl of Godolphin referred to the horse as an Arabian, and he was described as such by the painter George Stubbs. Lord Godolphin later bought a second stallion in 1750. This one he clearly called a "barb". Both were of a similar bay colour but the Barb had a star. Godolphin later bought a grey Barb which has also caused some confusion over the years. Originally, this small stallion was considered inferior to the larger European horses of the time and not meant to be put to stud. Instead he was used as 'teaser', a stallion used to gauge the mare's receptiveness. This changed when Lady Roxana, a mare brought to the stud specifically to be bred to a stallion called Hobgoblin, rejected her intended mate, and so the Godolphin Arabian was allowed to cover her instead.  The result of this mating was Lath, the first of his offspring, who went on to win the Queen's Plate nine times out of nine at the Newmarket races. The second colt from this pair was Cade, and the third was Regulus. All three were the same gold-touched bay as their sire, with the same small build and high crested conformation. All were exceptionally fast on the track, and went on to sire many foals themselves. This was the start of the Godolphin Arabian's prowess as a racing stud, and he spent the rest of his days as the Earl of Godolphin's prize stallion, bred to England's finest mares. The American connection began with the filly Selima (born in 1745 out of Shireborn). She was purchased by Benjamin Tasker, Jr. of the Province of Maryland in Colonial America, carried to the new world, and raced between 1750 and 1753. She won the biggest prize of the era, 2,500 pistoles at Gloucester, Virginia which marked "the beginning of the remarkable racing contests between the rival colonies of Maryland and Virginia." After this, she became a successful broodmare at the Belair Stud in Collington, Maryland. Among the many famous horses he sired were Lath, Cade (full brother to Lath), Blank and Regulus. The Godolphin Arabian was leading sire in Great Britain and Ireland in 1738, 1745 and 1747. The veterinary surgeon Osmer, as quoted by Prior described him in the following manner:
There never was a horse (at least, that I have seen) so well entitled to get racers as the Godolphin Arabian; for, whoever has seen this horse must remember that his shoulders were deeper, and lay farther into his back, than those of any horse ever yet seen. Behind the shoulders, there was but a very small space ere the muscles of his loins rose exceedingly high, broad, and expanded, which were inserted into his hindquarters with greater strength and power than in any horse I believe ever yet seen of his dimensions, viz fifteen hands high.   Within the stable block at Wandlebury is the grave of the Godolphin Arabian, the most famous of the Arabian stallions brought to England, and the ancestor of many of today's thoroughbred racehorses. The horse died at Wandlebury in 1753 at the age of 29.
The Godolphin Arabian died at Gog-Magog, Cambridgeshire in 1753, aged around 29. The horse's grave in the stable block of Wandlebury House can be visited. When he was interred, the occasion was marked with ale and cake. Although today the majority of Thoroughbred horses’ sire lines trace to the Darley Arabian, many famous American horses of the past trace their sire line back to the Godolphin Arabian. These include Seabiscuit, Man o' War, War Admiral, and Silky Sullivan. Today, dual Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow represents his line. In Europe, his influence survives mainly through the 2,000 Guineas winner Known Fact, and his son, the champion miler Warning. This line has produced outstanding sprinters such as Diktat (Haydock Sprint Cup), Avonbridge (Prix de l'Abbaye de Longchamp) and Dream Ahead (July Cup). The Derby has not been won by a sire line descendant of the Godolphin Arabian since Santa Claus in 1964 and is nowadays dominated by descendants of the Darley Arabian. So how, one asks, does this horse connect to the Austen family? The Austens, especially Edward and Henry, are known to have watched and enjoyed many a race. Perhaps they even had the opportunity to wager on one of the Godolphin Arabian’s many progeny. His Grand”son”, for instance, was Whistlejacket, who was the subject of one of the most famous horse paintings in history. This painting, by renowned artist George Stubbs (25 August 1724 – 10 July 1806), can be found in London’s National Gallery. It is truly impressive and one wonders if it was indeed unfinished as it is so striking in its simplicity. Whistlejacket by George Stubbs (1724–1806) circa 1762 Stubbs, a friend of Ozias Humphrey (Janites will recall this artist’s work on Edward Austen-Knight’s portrait as well as the Rice Portrait), painted the work in 1762 for Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, who subsequently displayed the piece at his home, “Wentworth Woodhouse”. Upon his death, the house and property, (though not his marquisate), passed to his nephew William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam. Wentworth Woodhouse, as it appears today, resembles Pemberley in many respects. Watson, Wentworth, Woodhouse, Fitzwilliam—all are names familiar to Janeites everywhere. It is surely no accident that they are brought here together in one family tree. There is even an “Emma Wodehouse” if one traces the line back to the 1600’s. Other branches of the same family include Vernons and even a D’Arcy connection! One wonders if Jane ever visited this estate, or at least sought inspiration from the pages of The Peerage. In the 1790's, Wentworth Castle (another family holding) was inherited by a young man named Frederick Wentworth, elevating him to the position of Earl of Strafford. Perhaps contemporary readers were beginning to ask questions, perhaps it was a family joke-- it all seems too close to be a coincidence,perhaps forcing Sir Walter Elliot protestation, in Austen's final novel, Persusaion,
“Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember, quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family.”
In any event, the painting, the painter, the estate and it's family, all seem to be wrapped up in a package of Austen connections which we might never be able to fully unravel. Still, the history is remarkable, and the story worth reading. Further information about Wentworth Woodhouse can be found in Janine Barchas's fascinating article, A Janeacation in Yorkshire?
Laura Boyle is the author of Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends. She is the proprietor of Austenation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Her greatest joy is the opportunity she has to teach her 3 children from home– an unending adventure, better than any novel.