Polo: A Royal Pursuit

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Going back hundreds of years, polo – the sport of kings – has been enjoyed almost exclusively by royalty and nobility.

By Chris Ritchie

Of all the rich sporting traditions enjoyed by members of England’s upper classes and royalty, those involving horses seem to be the most enduringly popular. For the royal family, polo is surely the top equestrian pursuit – it’s showmanship and pomp inferring a certain exclusivity and ensuring it keeps the lower classes away. And it helps if you own a horse too…

Polo became popularised in the royal family when King Edward VIII, the then Prince of Wales, was touring India in 1921. As a fan of the sport, he introduced his friend, the future Earl Mountbatten of Burma, to it. The Earl then turned his nephew, the Duke of Edinburgh, onto polo, and he went on to help set up the Household Brigade Polo Club at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park. He played there often until he retired from the game in 1970.

The origins of polo go back much, much further. Although several countries lay claim to having invented the sport, records place it of Persian origin as far back as 1AD. Indeed it became the national sport of Persia – Iran – much later, and was generally restricted to the nobility. It spread to other parts of Asia and the Indian subcontinent, including China, where it became well established, and in the East it became known as the sport of kings.

Once polo arrived in India, the Maharajas and courtiers took an interest and, not quite the strictly refereed game it is today, played it with relentless and violent vigour. Around 1865, British military officers in India picked up the game and established a set of (not so violent) rules. Some years later, when the Duke of Edinburgh got involved in the sport, he began a long and distinguished career as a player and leader.

Prince Philip had his own team, Windsor Park. In 1957 and 1966 they won the biggest European tournament – the Gold Cup for the British Open; and in 1958 and 1965, they clinched the Royal Windsor Cup, the Guards Polo Club medium-goal competition, as well as the Westbury Cup and the Cowdray Park Challenge Cup. Then in 1969, Philip’s son Prince Charles joined the team.

Charles was a keen polo player for over 40 years, using the sport to raise money for charity and getting his sons interested in it too. He gave up in 2005 but his sons William and Harry continue to play, mainly in charity matches.

Considering they and their father are all lined up in succession to the throne, polo really is the sport of kings.