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Who was the lady upon the white horse?

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Literature, Religion, Royalty on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

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This edited article about traditional verse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

Elizabeth I at Tilbury, picture, image, illustration

Queen Elizabeth I, riding a beautiful white horse, exhorts her troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approaches by C L Doughty

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,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

The fine cross for which Banbury was renowned and which stood in the market place, was destroyed around 1600 by the inhabitants, who were well known for their extreme Puritanism.

In their efforts to rid the town of anything associated with religious extravagance or popery they attacked the stone cross until it was completely defaced. The memory of the big cross remained, but it is unlikely that the rhyme originated after 1600.

Earlier versions vary in the description of the lady. Sometimes she is referred to as an old woman riding a black horse. The “fine lady upon a white horse” by popular tradition is believed to be Queen Elizabeth, who had a fantastic wardrobe from which she could choose the most elaborate finery.

It has been suggested that “bells on her toes” may have found its place in the fifteenth century when bells were sometimes fastened on the long extended points of fashionable footwear.

The term “ride a cock-horse” refers to a fine, splendid high-stepping animal holding its head high. Alternatively it can also mean an extra horse used to help a team pull a coach up a hill.

“She shall have music wherever she goes . . .” and who is more likely to command the playing of music than a queen?

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