In the current Broadway hit My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney girl who is painstakingly transformed into a lady, betrays her origins in a hilarious scene set at Ascot. Even without Eliza there is a good deal of humor in the Ascot scene, as Sir Alan, a celebrated satirist of English manners, and his collaborator, Caricaturist Rowland Emett, here demonstrate.
Ascot, to all good Englishmen, is a word like "diamonds," "champagne" or "oysters." You make a spiritual bow. By "Ascot," of course, you mean Royal Ascot, the meeting in June which is graciously attended (all four days, as a rule) by the Monarch. This year, as last, the Queen will attend. She will arrive on the bright green grass of Ascot, with Prince Philip at her side, in an open landau drawn by four Windsor grays. The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret are almost certain to attend, too, on opening day as well as on the three following days.
This is as it should be, for Ascot has been "royal" from its birth in 1711, the year Queen Anne ordered the course to be laid out. That Monarch is a schoolboy's joke and gets rather grudging marks from the historians. "She paid small attention to art and literature." But she and her consort, Prince George of Denmark, were resolute patrons of racing. They ran their own horses and gave gold cups and royal plates. So one day, driving round the common, she halted her carriage, took a shrewd look at the country and said, "Let there be a racecourse." And in August 1711 there was a race for "Her Majesty's plate of 100 guineas."
About a hundred years later someone apparently remembered that Ascot Heath was a common. An enclosure act was passed assigning the course to Her Majesty, "provided that it should be kept and continued as a racecourse for the public use at all times as it has usually been."
"The sport of kings" is not a meaningless expression or a modern invention of the press. Horse racing in general, and Ascot in particular, has always prospered or declined according to the interest and favor of the throne. Under the dour Oliver Cromwell the event was from time to time prohibited. Charles II "rode in person in several races." Under George IV, Ascot was endowed with its brightest pomp. It was George who instituted the famous Royal Procession when "he rode on the course up the New Mile in a coach and four with a splendid retinue, and attended by the Master of Buckhounds, Lord Marlborough."
The tradition of Ascot was splendidly maintained by Victoria until 1861, when her consort died, and thereafter by the Prince of Wales (Edward VII to be). In 1897, the year of the Diamond Jubilee ("sixty years a queen"), his horse Persimmon won the Gold Cup, and the double event "exactly coincided with the fitness of things in the popular imagination."
With a difference or two, the same gay picture will be seen on June 18, 19, 20 and 21 this year. The Master of the Buckhounds, who was once sole Steward of the Races, will not be seen in the procession, for his office was abolished in 1901. (Nor, by the way, will the Royal Huntsman start the races, as he did till 1846.) The course and the buildings are very different from those that Victoria and Persimmon saw, and this year alterations include two new stands in the Silver Ring, additional tote facilities, a new ladies' cloakroom and powder room in the paddock and four new stands around the parade ring. But the Queen with her consort each day will be the center of the shining scene; and if anything wearing Her Majesty's resplendent colors (purple, with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and black velvet cap with gold fringe) were to win, not only Ascot but the country would go mad.
From the earliest times, though the Monarch was in view in a public place, there had to be some arrangements for his safety and comfort, and so for reasonable seclusion. There was rough company at the races, riots and brawls among the gaming fraternity. An old man in sailor's dress threw stones at George IV. George III and Queen Charlotte had "two elegant marquees." George IV had a royal stand; and Victoria, or her advisers, added a royal enclosure. To this enclosure, being the best place from which to see the races, apart from any friends the Queen may personally invite, others are admitted upon application, provided that they have been presented at court and so, officially at least, are known to Her Majesty. There may be other provisos, but, if there are, say the thoughtful, they have positively nothing to do with anybody else but the Queen.
This is a royal party on royal property; and is not the Queen as well entitled as her humblest subject to have whom she chooses in her house or on her lawn? She is not, even in these democratic days, like a public museum which all may visit on demand. At Ascot, too, there must be some discrimination, for the simple reason that the space is limited and the demand is huge.
At the Ascot office in St. James's Palace, sits the Duke of Norfolk—Her Majesty's representative—who is in charge of course, crowds and the coveted badges which admit to the royal enclosure.