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Archibald Philip Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery, was born in 1847 to a life of incredible privilege. Though he went on to become a noted statesman, Rosebery’s life was always intertwined with horses. In fact he was expelled from Eton when it was discovered that he owned, and was racing in the Derby, one of England’s greatest Thoroughbred horses. Having flaunted the university’s rules, Rosebery was duly ejected because he refused to alter his equestrian plans. The young aristocrat was then free to make his first trip to the United States, which he did in 1873. The American people and press embraced the young free spirit, praising him in various news stories and inviting him into the best homes on the East coast. Upon his return to England, Rosebery continued pursuing his twin passions, politics and horses. He became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1894 and his horses won all five of the greatest English races. A lifelong horseman, Rosebery maintained one of his country’s greatest thoroughbred studs, where he bred such notable champions as Derby winner, Ladas. And it was because of Lord Rosebery’s equestrian connections and thanks to his reputation as a noted horseman that he became the owner of a perfect Main and Winchester saddle.
According to his extensive biography, Rosebery made a second journey to the United States in 1883. Having journeyed from the East coast, he made his way by train across Sierra Nevada to San Francisco. During his fortnight’s stay (October 6th to October 20th) he was entertained by local magnates, visited Chinatown, and survived a strong earthquake. He also came in contact with the famous Main & Winchester Saddle Company. It is not conclusive if Rosebery purchased the saddle, or received it as a form of diplomatic gift, nevertheless the world famous horseman embarked on the S.S. Zealandia with one of the finest saddles Main & Winchester had to offer. Thus the saddle sailed to Hawaii and Australia, before proceeding with its new owner around the world and back to England. There the saddle was placed in Rosebery’s famous home, The Durdans, which is located in the south of England. Though it represented the height of American saddle making at the time, there were a number of factors, which prohibited the Prime Minister, or his family and friends, from using the Main & Winchester saddle. First, the late Victorian age maintained strict scruples, which transferred to the equestrian set, just as it did to other more traditional forms of social control. Thus, it would have been highly provocative for an aristocrat of Rosebery’s social stature to have been seen publicly riding in a “cowboy” saddle. Moreover, because of his fanatic interest in Thoroughbred racing, the Prime Minister was interested in his riders using the lightest saddle possible.
Thus, because of a variety of social and equestrian reasons, the Main & Winchester saddle was accorded the status of being that of a “trophy.” Though it was too emotionally valuable to dispense with, it nevertheless was placed on a saddle stand and left to watch the years march by.
And that’s what saved the saddle. Having been accorded the rank of trophy, it was never ridden!
Lord Rosebery died in 1929. He is known today as the “forgotten Prime Minister” because he served the shortest term in office. Because he had owned twelve homes, it was decided that Rosebery’s immense geographic, literary and equestrian estate needed to be downsized. This is how it came to be that his saddle was suddenly without a home. In 1930 an estate sale was held at The Durdans, at which time the Main & Winchester saddle was sold for five pounds to a local businessman.
Like his aristocratic predecessor, the new owner had no practical use for the saddle. Yet he purchased it on a whim, along with an unrelated pair of 18th century cap and ball pommel holsters. Though he liked horses, the new owner had no application for either object. So he placed them on a sawhorse in the basement of his large family home – where they quietly resided, forgotten, for nearly eighty years.