Father of the Modern Circus
You’ve heard of a three ring circus, right? What about a big top that boasts a five ring spectacle? Have you ever stopped to wonder, why the heck a ring?
Why not a five square circus? Or a three hexagon circus? Okay, let’s just let go of the fact that a five square circus just doesn’t ring right.
Honestly, though, have you ever stopped and wondered, why a ring? Could the circus succeed without a ring to hold in the action? Sure, in a way, it did for thousands of years before one English equestrian decided it couldn’t.
That Englishman was Philip Astley (1742-1814), who lived, worked and entertained during the 18th century. Astley is revered by circus scholars as the founder of the modern circus because he developed the riding ring which is currently one of the most basic and recognizable elements of the circus.
Astley was a superb and daring rider, an art he learned while serving in the 15th Dragoons during the Seven Years’ War. At the age of 19 Astley became a hero for courageously and in a way, recklessly, charging and miraculously breaking the French line of battle during an engagement. For this remarkable feat and others, Astley was quickly promoted from the lowly rank of corporal to the rank of sergeant major.
Astley quit the army in 1766 at the age of 24, married quickly when he returned to England and set up a little open air trick riding show in a field near Westminster Bridge. Trick riding was nothing new in England when Astley established his first show, the exercise was widely popular throughout England and Europe in general; however, what set Astley apart from other trick riders was not the tricks he performed, but how Astley performed them. Many riders at the time would ride their horses in a dead sprint in a straight line while performing their feats in the saddle; yet, Astley was wildly different. Astley elected not to dart his horse in a line but rather ran his horse in a tight circle, using centrifugal force, to perform his tricks.
It was this particular riding style, and because Astley noticed that audiences were better able to follow his show when it was focused in a centralized and finite space, which led Astley to develop the modern day circus ring. As Astley’s fame and fortune increased he built a house over the entrance to his field, large wooden stands for the public and even penthouses for the wealthy, and most importantly the performance ring in the open field near Westminster Bridge. Astley named his newly refurbished arena Astley’s Amphitheater in 1770.
Soon, to add novelty to his show and to supplement his own equestrian act (and to continue the comfortable stream of coin into his coffers), Astley added acts including: rope walkers, dancing dogs, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, a strongman, troupes of acrobats and even musicians. Astley’s new entertainment formula of trick riding mixed with various entertaining acts was met with immediate and wide-spread success.
Thus Astley and his band of performers, entertaining in a ring, and offering a variety of acts gave birth to the modern circus.
You might be questioning all of this, thinking, wait a darn minute there fella, no no this just doesn’t add up. Who are you trying to hoodwink? Haven’t performers, like acrobats and magicians and clowns been performing long before this Astley fellow came around. How can he be the father of the modern circus just for using a ring?
Well, you’re partially right. Acrobats, magicians and clowns have been entertaining at least since the time of the pharaohs, maybe even before. However, these acrobats, magicians, clowns and jugglers roamed and worked independently of each other. Yet, it was not until Astley’s Riding School that these independent entertainment guilds were integrated for audiences into an all-in-one extravaganza.
The standard Astley used for the size of the circus ring, forty-two feet in diameter, is still utilized by many outfits throughout the circus world.