In London, 1961, authorities announced the discovery of a clandestine Soviet spy ring. In Liverpool, little-known skiffle group the Beatles first gigged in the Cavern Club’s cellar. And in Leeds, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease left sportsmen dismayed that the annual three-day event at Harewood House , home to the Earl of Harewood, would likely be canceled.
But 100 miles to the southwest in Stamford, Lincolnshire, another grand English country home existed. Its patron, David Burghley, sixth Marquess of Exeter, was himself an erstwhile athlete, having leapt to gold medal glory in the 400 meter hurdle  at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games. Former MP of Peterborough and President of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Burghley was by then the 56-year-old head of his family’s four-century-old estate, Burghley House , which—like Harewood—boasted the verdant lanes, serpentine lake and circular arboretums typical of celebrated 18th century English gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Word traveled to Lord Burghley that the Harewood House three-day was threatened, and shortly thereafter he contacted the British Horse Society with an offer. That year, of all the lionhearted starters on Burghley’s first cross-country course , only two finished without penalty.
403 years before the first horse on course, William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer and chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, had begun construction on a 16th century symbol of status (and still today): a country home grandiose in both silhouette and size. Burghley House, nearly 30 years in the making, would eventually be home to public figures, MPs, officers and other distinguished members of the Cecil family in 35 major rooms and 80 lesser rooms throughout its four-century history. Members of the Cecil family still live at Burghley today.
But it wasn’t until the 18th century that Burghley’s landscape began to take on a more modern aspect, converted from the geometrical Versailles-like style popular during construction to the more open, park-like environment evident today.
“Capability” Brown, famous for returning the gardens of famous English houses like Badminton, Blenheim, Bowood, Harewood and Longleat to a simpler, more natural state, would leave his mark on Burghley, too, laying out wide avenues and upgrading the 9-acre pond to a 26-acre lake at the invitation of Brownlow Cecil (1725–1793).
Brown had garnered the nickname “Capability” because he often spoke of a landscape’s “capability” for improvement; it’s fitting, then, that his moniker has been given to several of the cross-country fences laid out on the avenues he envisioned. In 1961, Capability’s Cutting, a downhill combination, caused several falls; in 2011, riders will have to successfully negotiate Capability’s South  and Capability’s Cutting,  fences 17 and 24 respectively, to have any hope of triumph.
A Storied Roster
Anneli Drummond-Hay and the 6-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Merely-A-Monarch were one of a few pairs to make easy work of Capability’s Cutting in 1961, going down in history as the first pair to triumph at Burghley. In 1962, Drummond-Hay and Merely-A-Monarch went on to win the Badminton Horse Trials and an international grand prix jumping competition, eventually being short-listed for the Olympics in all three disciplines. Drummond-Hay and Merely-A-Monarch were just the first in what has become a long list of storied Burghley winners, many of whom began their own traditions or went on to additional acclaim.
1965: Marietta Fox-Pitt placed second at Burghley, beginning a family tradition. Her son, William Fox-Pitt, is now tied with Virginia Holgate and Mark Todd for having won Burghley a record five times. Thus far, William’s winning mounts have included Chaka (1994), Highland Lad (2002), Ballincoola (2005), Parkmore Ed (2007) and Tamarillo (2008). He’s entered on multiple mounts in this year’s event.
1971: HRH Princess Anne began another winning legacy, accepting her trophy from her mother, the Queen, for her victorious ride aboard Doublet. Two years later, Princess Anne’s then-husband, Capt. Mark Phillips, won on Maid Marion, and in 2011, their daughter, World Equestrian Games gold medalist Zara Phillips, will gallop High Kingdom out of the start box over a course that her father designed.
1974: Bruce Davidson became the first U.S. rider to win Burghley aboard Irish Cap, finishing on a score of 71.67. Stephen Bradley and Sassy Reason have been the only other U.S. combination to win Burghley, in 1993.
1978: Seasoned competitor Lorna Clarke claimed Burghley victory aboard Greco. Between 1967 and 1989, Clarke completed Burghley an amazing 16 times, though Greco was her only victor.
1985: Virginia Holgate and Priceless took their second victory at Burghley after winning in 1983. Priceless remains the only horse to have won Burghley twice, while Holgate claimed three other victories aboard Night Cap II (1984), Murphy Himself (1986) and Master Craftsman (1989).
2001: Blyth Tait and Ready Teddy added the Burghley title to their impressive résumé of wins, including individual gold medals at the World Equestrian Games (Rome, 1998) and the Olympics (Atlanta, 1996).
2003: Pippa Funnell won the event on Primmore’s Pride, cementing the third victory in her historic Grand Slam of Eventing after having won the four-stars at Rolex Kentucky aboard Primmore’s Pride and Badminton aboard Supreme Rock earlier that year. Funnell remains the only rider to have won the Grand Slam.
If Capt. Phillips’ course walk  is any indication, this year’s competition looks to be the most challenging yet.
In 2011, Burghley’s victors will add their names to a 50-year history of eventing’s all-time superstars, a tradition ultimately set on its path by William Cecil in the 1500s.
At this moment, the crowds are already gathering in Stamford, with the 50th Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials set to begin this Thursday, Sept. 1.
As a youngster, Chronicle of the Horse staffer Abby Gibbon was mystified by a black-and-white photo of her grandfather  competing in a jumper class in the 1960s. He wasn’t wearing a helmet! His saddle pad was non-existent! The wall he was jumping looked like it would knock you down, too, if you happened to knock it! In the past 50 years, the world of equestrianism has evolved, but one thing is still for certain: History is something we all share as horse enthusiasts, and we’ve got to explore it to learn from it. Armed with nearly 75 years of Chronicle archives, Abby plans to unearth articles we haven’t examined for too many years, shedding light on how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go – as modern horsemen.
Have ideas for historical topics? Questions or curiosities? Please e-mail Abby  – she’d love to hear from you!