Newmarket offers many different types of interest for visitors. Apart from the wonderful expanse of its training grounds and its world-class Racecourses, the town has many Grade II listed buildings within its streets. Numerous hotels, coffee shops, pubs and restaurants all offer abundant hospitality. All of these assets are clues to Newmarket’s very long, interesting and unexpected history.
The town stands on a belt of chalk which is very free-draining and makes a superb terrain for horseracing. However, there is little surface water in the landscape.
Early people needed to live close to their water sources and Newmarket has both springs of water and a small river (now culverted). In addition, the oldest road in Britain, The Icknield Way, runs through Newmarket. In the days of flooded fens to one side and dense forest to the other, the dry chalk belt provided the safest and easiest route through East Anglia for travellers.
Since the Stone Age high-quality flint (only found in chalk landscapes) was transported along the Icknield Way from the mines at Grimes Graves, situated to the north-east of Newmarket. This was Britain’s first industry. Ancient habitation in Newmarket, Exning and surrounding areas is also shown by the remains of Bronze Age and Iron Age barrows which were scattered across the Heath until the 19th century.
The powerful Iron Age Iceni tribe included the Newmarket area in their lands. They were breeders of fine horses and dogs. Their most famous queen, Boudicca, led a major rebellion against the Romans in 60 /61 AD and almost succeeded in driving them out of Britain. Remains of Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements also exist near Newmarket.
The huge “Devil’s Dyke” earthwork on Newmarket Heath, which runs for about 7 miles between Woodditton and Reach, is Anglo-Saxon in origin, dating from the 600s AD. It was originally a defensive structure but today the footpath running along the dyke offers interesting and varied walks, together with some spectacular views across the Heath and Racecourses. It is also a site of Special Scientific Interest and home to rare species of flora and fauna.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Newmarket area became part of the Exning Manor and it was so, in 1200 AD, when Sir Richard de Argentein married Cassandra, daughter of Robert de L’Isle, Lord of the Manor of Exning. It is likely that Newmarket became Sir Richard’s property as part of the marriage dowry. Sir Richard was a wealthy and powerful man, with influence at Court, he lost no time in obtaining a Market Charter from the King. Different sources attest that the town quickly became known as “Newmarket” and became a manor in its own right. Newmarket’s medieval Market Charter was one of the earliest granted in Suffolk, possibly in England. The royal grant of a Fair Charter soon followed in 1223. The Heath was also a spacious location for medieval tournaments which attracted large crowds.
Since time long-forgotten Newmarket has accommodated travellers. The town is roughly one day’s journey away, on horse or foot, from other old towns in the area. The weekly markets and annual fairs brought many people to Newmarket and greatly prospered the town. Numerous small pubs and larger inns sprang up for both locals and travellers. Medieval people feared disease and thought it safer to drink ale than water. Even children drank weak ale called “small beer”. Most Newmarket brewers were women (alewives) and most bakers were men.
Farming was the main occupation of the local community but the great variety of other trades in the medieval town is demonstrated in an Account Roll of 1472 relating to the market. By this time the market was arranged into rows according to the type of trade. In 1472 there were 12 rows and 102.5 shops and stalls. The market was important enough to have its own laws and courts. The prosperous town was also to eventually have its own corn exchange. Newmarket also had two parish churches, St Mary’s and All Saints, which were hubs of medieval life and both still actively participate in the life of the town today.
Thus, everyday life continued until unexpected events changed Newmarket forever. King James I “discovered” Newmarket on Wednesday, February 27th, 1604, according to Fordham Parish register. He had come to Newmarket Heath to hunt but he then discovered the freedom the area offered him compared to London. He determined to use Newmarket as a sort of holiday location away from the capital. King James eventually bought a large old inn on the High Street. He added another to it for extra space and this was the start of Newmarket Palace I.
Later, in 1613, the much grander Newmarket Palace II was constructed on the same site. Inigo Jones was employed as architect. This subsequently became the palace of James’ son, King Charles I. Sadly; it also became his prison for a time on the way to London for his execution.
This was probably one of the reasons that his son, King Charles II, chose to build a new, larger Palace (number III) further along the High Street after he returned to the town in 1666. Palace House, the remnant of his Palace, is incorporated into Newmarket’s National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art.
The Stuart monarchs all influenced Newmarket in different, positive ways. William III and Mary II and Queen Anne also loved the sport here and improved the palace.
In the early days of Royal Patronage only the King and chief courtiers could be accommodated in the town. Everyone else had to camp on the Heath, together with their servants, baggage, and all the hangers-on that such a gathering attracted. It must have been quite a spectacle. Once the King had established a palace and had made regular visits to Newmarket, the courtiers wanted to do the same. Large houses were built in and around the town and stables were added. As horseracing increased in popularity studs arose to breed finer horses and the foundations of modern Newmarket and the racing industry were laid down, especially during the reign of Charles II.
Through successive centuries the Thoroughbred breed of horse was refined here and horseracing became a popular, organised sport in Newmarket. The arrival of The Jockey Club in the town in 1752 was a major factor in this. Initially, members met in The Red Lion inn but soon rented a fashionable coffee shop for their meetings. This was later incorporated into the Jockey Club’s own building.
The nineteenth century saw another milestone in the bloodstock and racing industries in Newmarket. The railway arrived in 1842. It is said that matters were pushed forward for this event because MPs in London wanted to be able to get to the races and to get back quickly to be able to conduct business in Parliament!
Eventually Newmarket had three stations to accommodate all the race traffic. The racing and bloodstock industries were transformed. Horses could be moved quickly and safely by rail all over the country with fewer skilled staff to tend them.
Of course, this resulted in the expansion of the town. Many grand houses were built for wealthy people and workers came from across the country for employment in the racing and bloodstock industries or to be in service. Royal Patronage continued into the twentieth century as King Edward VII maintained a stable here and was a frequent visitor to Newmarket. Around this period Newmarket sausages, a delicacy long-enjoyed by locals, began to achieve a much wider popularity. The railway had made it possible to take some home after the races. Indeed, the Royal family had a regular Newmarket sausage consignment sent by train.
Newmarket was not exempt from two World Wars, although limited racing continued in both because it was considered to be a matter of public morale and also some normal life for people. In the First World War the Heath became a vast military base and an early RAF base. In the Second World War a much larger air base, centred on the Racecourse, was part of Bomber Command.
Today, Newmarket is still known as “Headquarters” in the racing world and it is one of the world’s leading horseracing venues and equine centres. It is also a leading centre of equine medicine and the research done here has benefitted many poorer areas of the world.
This wonderful expanse of heathland around Newmarket is here today for everyone to enjoy. It is said to be the largest expanse of cultivated heathland in the world but it probably would not exist if it was not for the horseracing industry and the people who tend it on the industry’s behalf. Newmarket has a unique history and heritage, both of which it can justly be proud.
NLHS researches and records the history of the town of Newmarket and its people, in addition to that of the nearby surrounding areas. There is obviously some overlap with the history of the horse-racing industry in the town.
The Society was formed in the early 1980’s and members have brought back to light many aspects of Newmarket’s long history which had been lost or forgotten. Some members pursue active research about topics which interest them, whilst others prefer just to attend the monthly meetings. A variety of speakers provide interesting talks about diverse history topics.
The Society assists many diverse enquirers each year (please note we are not a family history society). We also visit local schools, in addition to producing a variety of local history publications.
NLHS meets in The Stable, Newmarket High Street, on the 3rd Tuesday of each month, September to April. Visitors are always welcome (except December, which is Members only). The Stable is accessible to all. May to July meetings are held at different locations in the local area. No meeting in August. The Society is a not-for-profit, voluntary organisation. We keep our membership fees low to ensure that local history is accessible to everyone. Membership is £8 per year or visitors £2 per meeting.
To Contact us: visit our newmarketlhs website to email us, see news and find details of our meetings.
For further details and Palace images see:
Copyright text and pictures supplied for the use of Newmarket Town Council by Newmarket Local History Society