The Carlisle racing bells, which date from the second half of the Tudor period – in fact, from the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – are reputedly the earliest surviving racing trophies in Britain. The original bells are delicate, precious artefacts, but a replica is presented to the winning owner of the Carlisle Bell, which is still run annually each June at Carlisle Racecourse, effectively making them the oldest sporting trophies still contested anywhere in the world.
The Carlisle bells are typical of horse racing trophies of the day, which often included ornamental embellishments, such as bells, which could be attached to items of tack, such as bridles and saddles.
The larger, gold bell, which was first awarded in 1599 – the earliest record of organised horse racing in Carlisle – bears an inscription, in Tudor English, which reads ‘The swiftest horse this bell to take, for my Lady Dacre’s sake’. The Lady Dacre in question is believed to be Elizabeth, wife of William, Third Baron Dacre of Gilsland, who served as Warden of the West Marches under Queen Elizabeth I. Although not explicitly date-stamped, the bell is believed to date from c. 1560. The smaller, silver bell is easier to date because it bears the inscription ‘1599 H.B.M.C.’; the initials are believed to stand for Henry Baines, Mayor of Carlisle.
Nowadays, the Carlisle bells spend most of the year at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art at Palace House, Newmarket, but make a 267-mile annual pilgramage to the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle in time for the Carlisle Bell. Indeed, they often make an appearance at Carlisle Racecourse on its most prestigious raceday of the year.