Carlisle Racing Bells are the oldest known horse racing prizes in Britain.
They date from the later part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Carlisle racecourse hosts the historic Carlisle Bell and Cumberland Plate meeting towards the middle of June.
The history of the bells
The larger bell, perhaps dating from the 1580s, has the inscription:
'The sweftes horse thes bel to tak for mi lade Daker sake'
(The Swiftest horse this bell to take for my lady Dacre's sake)
The second bell, is inscribed: 1599 H.B.M.C. In this case, the initials are believed to stand for:
Henry Baines, Mayor of Carlisle
The Carlisle bells are remarkable survivors from the early days of organised horseracing.
Civic records show that in the 17th century the city had at least 4 racing prizes.
In 1619, for example: "We request that Mr Mayor and his bretheren shall call for the silver broad arrows and the stock and the horse and nage bells with all expedition to be employed for maintaining of a horse race for the city's use (upon the king's moor) at such time yearly as they shall think convenient and to article".
The silver arrows and stock have been lost, but the two bells (the horse and nage bells - nage being northern/scottish word for a horse i.e. a nag) would seem to have survived.
Tudor silver bells
Bells, bridles, plates and purses
Although racing horses seems to have been a popular activity in Britain for many centuries, the first properly recorded races date from the 16th century.
Over the following century, the Jacobean kings (James I, Charles I, Charles II and James II) gave racing their royal patronage and encouraged the setting up of permanent new courses all over the country.
During this period, silver bells were common racehorse prizes, along with bridles, plates and purses of money.
Important local families (like the Dacres), town officials and trade guilds would have given such prizes in order to attract the best horse owners and riders.
The more prestigious the event, the more people it would attract to the city, all of whom brought money to spend on local goods and services.
The bells seem to have survived as part of the council's collection of civic silver and were in fact lost for many years before being rediscovered in a box in the town clerk's office during the later 19th century.
The Lady's Plate
The second well-known horse racing prize is the Lady's Plate. The origin of this is unclear, but it was being run from at least the 18th century.
A new prize would appear to have been given to the winner every year. One example is known to have survived into the 20th century.
A silver coffee pot (made in Newcastle) was given as a prize for this race in 1726 and was sold at auction in London during the 1950s. Its whereabouts today are unknown.
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