The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

dust jacket

The following post is the ninth of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!


The Weyhill Fair

The Telegraph, rival of the Quicksilver which our author repeatedly states can do 175 miles in eighteen hours, used to pass through Weyhill, which was famous for its annual fair, “which would make those people who have never seen one stare.”

This festivity, which is indeed quite an un-English and out-of-the-way sight, begins on October 10th (Michaelmas Eve) and goes on for six days, during which all the country-side seems to have broken loose, and high junketings are to be seen. Besides junketings (which prevail chiefly on the last day of the fair in connection with peep-shows of the most blood-curdling description, whirligigs, merry-go-rounds, rifle galleries, and gingerbread) are also to be seen wonderful shows of sheep, magnificent cheeses, the finest hops in England displayed in the Farnham Row, great exhibits of machinery and enormous carthorses, and, enveloping all, a Babel indescribable.

Amesbury and the Abbey

Amesbury is where Guinevere arrived “somewhat late at night, after a ride across the Plain” after her affair with Lancelot was discovered.

“…hither came Queen Elfrida in 980…after her murder of her stepson Edward at Corfe; and, bent like all medieval murderesses suffering from a temporary mental depression, on building a church. When she came to the point however, and had interviewed the architect and the abbot, she went the whole hog and built an abbey.”

Amesbury Abbey (the church)

Amesbury Abbey (the church)

Prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution, the abbey played host, when “the Exeter road at that time was but a medieval cart-track, and a very bad one too,” to Eleanor of Brittany, sister of Prince Arthur and Mary, sixth daughter of Edward I. “Eleanor, Queen of Henry III, died here, and Katharine of Aragon stayed for a while here on her first arrival in England in 1501.”

Following the dissolution, “the abbey of Amesbury became Amesbury Abbey and passed from the Earl of Somerset, to whom it was granted by Henry VIII, into the respective hands of the Aylesburys, Boyles, and Queensberrys…”

The Abbey eventually became the parish church, and the nearby mansion of the same name built by Inigo Jones is now part of a group by the same name that operates nursing and retirement homes in the area.

Amesbury Abbey_thumb

Amesbury Abbey (the stately home)

This is where Kitty, “the charming Duchess of Queensberry played the Lady Bountiful in the place, and by entertaining Prior and Gay the Abbey graced the quaint old Wiltshire town with the memories of two of the not least celebrated of the English humorists.”

The Duchess of Queensberry

According to the Douglas family history, Catherine Douglas, née Hyde, was an outspoken, rather eccentric woman who “loved walking, avoided alcohol and was an enthusiastic planter of trees at her husband’s estates.” She’d grown up “in a household frequented by literary celebrities,” and it was she about whom Prior wrote the poem “The Female Phaeton: Upon Lady Kitty’s First Appearing in Public” when she was sixteen.

Catherine Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry

Catherine Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry

Following her marriage to Charles Douglas, 3rd duke of Queensberry, the acclaimed beauty Kitty became an avid patron of the arts, to the point of being exiled from court when her defense of the playwright John Gay offended King George II. Gay spent the last years of his life at the Abbey, where he wrote the Beggar’s Opera, and was given a lavish funeral at his death in 1732.

The Douglas family history fails to mention the fascinating story of Julius Soubise, a Negro slave from the West Indies who was given to the duchess in 1764 when he was ten years old. She gave him a privileged life, treating him as her own son, and he became a noted fencing and riding master, a member of the most exclusive clubs, and quite popular among upper-class social circles. A violinist and singer, he trained in oratory with the actor David Garrick. At times he claimed to be African royalty, calling himself “Prince Ana-Ana-maboe” or the “Black Prince.” It was rumored that the duchess and her protégé had a sexual relationship, so perhaps that is the reason Soubise was left out of the family history. Is it only coincidence that the duchess died two days after Soubise sailed for India?


Julius Soubise

One reason I love delving into these family histories is the interesting things you find. The 3rd Duke of Queensberry, it turns out, succeeded his father “due to special remainder,” when his older brother James was declared insane. Both of the 3rd duke’s sons predeceased him and the title passed to a distant cousin, William Douglas, who later became a friend of the Prince of Wales.

The Duchess of Queensberry Rules

Actually, it was the 9th Marquess of Queensberry to whom the  1867 code on which modern boxing is based can be attributed (although he was not the author, merely the endorser). This code, meant for both amateur and professional matches, is and was the first to mention the use of gloves for boxing. The dear duchess had nothing to do with it, having passed on ninety years earlier.

 Index to all the posts in this series

1: The Bath Road: The (True) Legend of the Berkshire Lady

2: The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

3: The Bath Road: Lacock Abbey

4: The Bath Road: The Bear Inn at Devizes and the “Pictorial Chronicler of the Regency”

5: The Exeter Road: Flying Machines, Muddy Roads and Well-Mannered Highwaymen

6: The Exeter Road: A Foolish Coachman, a Dreadful Snowstorm and a Romance

7: The Exeter Road in 1823: A Myriad of Changes in Fifty Years

8: The Exeter Road: Basingstoke, Andover and Salisbury and the Events They Witnessed

9: The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

10: The Exeter Road: Stonehenge, Dorchester and the Sad Story of the Monmouth Uprising

11: The Portsmouth Road: Royal Road or Road of Assassination?

12: The Brighton Road: “The Most Nearly Perfect, and Certainly the Most Fashionable of All”

13: The Dover Road: “Rich crowds of historical figures”

14: The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

15: The Dover Road: Rochester and Charles Dickens

16: The Dover Road: William Clements, Gentleman Coachman

17: The York Road: Hadley Green, Barnet

18: The York Road: Enfield Chase and the Gunpowder Treason Plot

19: The York Road: The Stamford Regent Faces the Peril of a Flood

20: The York Road: The Inns at Stilton

21: The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

22: The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

23: The Holyhead Road: Old Lal the Legless Man and His Extraordinary Flying Machine

24: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part I)

25: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part II)

26: Flying Machines and Waggons and What It Was Like To Travel in Them

27: “A few words on Coaching Inns” and Conclusion