Hunting in Tudor England

Hunting in Europe and Asia with specially bred and trained dogs was the sport of nobles and the clergy, in large part because they owned or controlled much of the land suitable for hunting. Hunting with sighthounds in this era hadn't changed much since the time of Romans. It was a sport, not the serious pursuit of food, which pitted the hounds against the hare and against each other.

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Elizabeth at a picnic
Woodcut from "The Booke of Hunting"
The British Library

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"Elizabeth I out Hunting"
woodcut from "The Booke of Hunting"
The British Library

Queen Elizabeth herself loved to hunt. The hunt allowed the rich nobles to show off their fine horses, hawks, clothing, and weapons. Horses were shown off by their breeding, most commonly by nobles, and ranked by endurance, speed, beauty, and strength. From the hunting rounds the wealthy would often establish a breeding tree of some sort in an attempt to create the perfect breed. Field sports provided a moral means of escape.

The writer and poet George Turbervile, who had been secretary of the able diplomant Thomas Randolph, and had accompanied him on his journey to Moscow, wrote two books on hunting and hawking. In The Booke of Faulconrie, which was published in 1575, he wrote about the breeding and training of hawks; and in his other book, The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting, which was probably written at about the same time, he explained the proper way of organizing a hunt, including those occasions when a prince was present. He followed closely an authoritative French book on the subject, but introduced changes to take into account the different customs which in some respects were followed in England. In France, after the hart was killed, the chief huntsman cut off one of its feet and handed it, on his knees, to the King; in England, the huntsman, also on his knees, handed the hunting knife to the King, who stabbed the hart's carcass as if he were killing the hart. This English practice was adopted whenever Elizabeth I hunted. But Turbervile stressed the importance of not going through this ritual until the hart was safely dead; for if the prince really tried to kill the hart, he might be seriously hurt or even killed, for a hart at bay could inflict great damage on its pursuers. The hart is a frightened beast which normally did not dare to look at the weakest man in his kingdom; and this inspired Turbervile to some philosophical reflections. It should be a warning to princes not to oppress a humble subject and goad him into standing in his own defence, and 'like the worm, turn again when it is trodden so'. But Turbervile hastened to add that his words must not be interpreted as condemning hunting, for that would be contrary to his whole purpose in writing the book; 'and again I should seem to argue against God's ordinances, since it seemeth that such beasts have been created to the use of man and for his recreation'.

Despite the protests of a few humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, in early Tudor England hunting was deemed by most to be not only a symbol of knighthood, but an activity that marked out the true gentleman. Those of rank were expected to take part because sporting events trained men for war, whereas the laborers had to work six days a week and could not participate. On Sundays, the working class often practiced archery.

'By God's Body I would rather that my son should hang than study literature. It behoves the sons of gentlemen to blow horn calls correctly, to hunt skillfully, to train a hawk well and carry it elegantly. But the study of literature should be left to clodhoppers.'

Anonymous gentleman to Richard Pace (1517)

The animals that were hunted the most were the stag or buck, and when the prey was felled, it was always eaten. During mid-winter, when stag could not be hunted, the Royals and their nobles engaged in hawking.

An Act of Henry VII's first Parliament in 1485 made unauthorized hunting in prívate forests a felony punishable by death if the offence was committed at night or if the poachers had disguised or obscured their faces to prevent themselves from being identified; but if it was done in the daytime and without a disguise, it was only a trespass punishable by fine or imprisonment.

There was one exception to the legislation which prohibited the destruction of game or the stealing of birds' eggs. The authorities were alarmed at the damage caused by rooks and crows, who not only did great harm to the husbandman's crops but also damaged the thatch on the roofs of cottages and barns. An Act of 1533 enacted that every parish must keep nets for catching rooks. Anyone was entitled to enter land without the landowner's permission in order to destroy rooks, if permission had been asked and refused, without being liable for damages for trespass.

For Henry VIII, hunting provided a chance to escape from the cares of politics with a few friends:

Pastime with good company
I love and shall until I die
Grudge to lust, but none deny
So God be pleased, thus live will I
For my pastance,
Hunt, sing and dance,
My heart is set,
All goodly sport
For my comfort:
Who shall me let?

For others, such as the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, hunting was associated with a nostalgic, lost happiness. When he was imprisoned in Windsor Castle for striking Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, he wrote wistfully of how, as a companion to the King's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond:

'With cry of hounds and merry blasts between

Where we did chase the fearful hart a force.'

The poet Thomas Wyatt associated hunting with the quiet life, far from the cares of politics. He warned his friend, John Poyntz, against following a political career:

'This maketh me at home to hounte
  and hawke
And in fowle weder at my booke to
In frost and snowe then with my bow
  to stalke;

No man doeth marke where so I ride
  or goo;
In lusty lees at libertie I walke,
And of these newes I fele nor wele
  nor woo.

As an enjoyable recreation, then, hunting provided an essential contrast to a gentleman's daily business, and he had notable and ancient support in this. Pliny, for example, had argued that hunting provided the gentleman with a necessary change from his usual work.

Morally, hunting was justified as a means of avoiding idleness. A rather sanctimonious young Henry VIII announced that hunting was a means to avoid 'Idlenes the ground of all vyce and to exercise that thing that shalbe honorable and to the bodye healthfull and profitable'. The courtier and humanist educational writer Sir Thomas Elyot writes of Xenophon's Doctrine of Cyrus, that Cyrus 'and other ancient kings of Persia used this manner in all their hunting', and he provides a description of the role of the hunt in the upbringing of the Persian nobleman.

Hunting had provided an essential adjunct to the academic education of the children of the gentry since ancient times, and during the sixteenth century this appears to have remained true. Courtiers like Elyot, with his 'Book of the Governor', and Francis Bryan, in his 'Dispraise of the life of a courtier', both followed the eminent example of Castiglione, for whom hunting was 'the true pastime of great lords, a suitable pursuit for a courtier'. In Scotland during the early 1520s, Queen Margaret was criticised for neglecting to educate the young James V properly, as she did not let him take part in hunting expeditions. Fathers looked proudly upon children who showed prowess in these extracurricular activities. As a child, Thomas Cranmer learned to hunt and hawk, and though his father 'were minded to have his son educated in learning', he still permitted him to hunt and hawk, and to ride rough horse; so that when he was bishop, he feared not to ride the roughest horses that came into his stables, which he would do very comely. Henry VIII himself was kept informed of the hunting expeditions undertaken by his children. He was told in 1525, that his young son, the Duke of Richmond, although ill and travelling in a litter for some miles, had shot a deer by himself in Clyff Park in Northamptonshire, while journeying to the royal house at Colyweston. As this was a six-year-old child, Henry was clearly expected to be impressed. The King's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was also kept informed of his son Gregory's enthusiasm for hunting, as well as his school progress. Gregory's tutor, Henry Dowes, informed Cromwell on several occasions that Gregory and his friends were in good health and learning, and noted that if they carried on in this way

'wheras the laste somer was spente in the servyce of the wylde goddes Diana, this shall (I truste) be consecrated to Apollo and the muses to theire no small profecte and your good contentation and pleasure.'

Although new humanist styles in education were advocated during the early sixteenth century, which emphasised the intellectual development of the noble youth, a reading of contemporary documents demonstrates that a knowledge of hunting remained essential for the heir to any significant noble household. According to the mid-fifteenth-century 'Boke of Curtesy', which says nothing on how to hunt, it was necessary for the noble child to have a knowledge of what money was due to the huntsmen, the bread they were owed, and the number of bones that should be given to each dog. It must therefore have been essential for these children to know how the hunting establishment fitted into the wider organisation of the household. The young gentleman of the late fifteenth century also had to learn the household etiquette relating to the hunt, and in particular to its produce, venison.

Early Tudor huntsmen used a range of largely specialised weaponry to pursue and kill their prey. For boar, a special spear and sword, or 'tokke', both with cross bars beneath the point designed to prevent over-penetration, were used by huntsmen such as the Duke of Suffolk and the Marquis of Dorset, when they were on embassy to the French Court. Boar hunting would have been reserved to ambassadors abroad, but most huntsmen would have used a hunting sword or woodknife, such as the one with 'the hefte being gilte' that Lord Montague gave Henry VIII in New Year, 1532. Despite this specialisation, weapons were similar enough to be interchangeable and hunting weapons were occasionally used in real fighting. An Irish soldier was stabbed with a boar spear by a German mercenary in 1544 during an affray that followed Henry VIII's capture of Boulogne. Hunting also provided a valuable exercise in shooting. The favoured weapon was the crossbow, and many of the references to this weapon in the armouries of the ruling elite may have been for hunting rather than for war. In Henry VIII's palace of Hunsdon in 1539, there were two crossbows, complete with fourteen forked arrows and two 'vyrrall bolts', arrows which were clearly designed for the huntsman. There are no surviving references to shooting with the gun, which was beginning to make archery a redundant skill on the battlefield. The gun was perhaps too inaccurate at this stage to make much impact on the hunting field, although Henry VIII did have a specially made breach loader.

The animal hunted was ordinarily the stag, which in the Tudor Age was usualy called the hart. The English wild swine was not as fierce or fleet of foot as the boar in Europe, and was hardly worth hunting. Sometimes a buck was hunted instead of a hart. Yeomen farmers hunted foxes, but no gentleman did until the end of the seventeenth century. When a hart or buck was killed, it was eaten. Harts could be hunted at most times of the year, but not in mid-winter, and the King and his nobles then engaged in hawking instead. Falcons were trained for this sport, and statutes were passed to punish any poacher who stole their eggs.

The pursuit of animals on horseback or on foot, more than other types of hunting, was important because it provided good exercise, or 'valiaunt motion of the spirites' by which 'all thinges superfluous be expelled, and the conduits of the body clensed'. Riding at speed gave the hunter such exercise, while he was necessarily out in fresh air, which, according to the early Tudor physician Andrew Boorde was an essential element in healthy living. Not all hunting was deemed useful for the gentleman in this respect, however. Elyot wrote, rather contemptuously, that

'Hunting of the hare with greyhounds is a right good solace for men that be studious ... and also for gentlewomen, who fear neither sun nor wind for impairing their beauties.'

Elyot's criticism did not, however, stop England's nobility from taking part wholeheartedly in it. Hunting was valuable not only for its healthiness but because it was a means of exercising the gentleman's manliness or prowess. The influential Italian humanist Baldassar Castiglione noted that it was one of the sports that 'demand a great deal of manly exertion'. To demonstrate such prowess, Elyot wrote that only certain species should be hunted, however, and used classical example to make his point. 'The chief hunting of the valiant Greeks', he noted, 'was of the lion, the leopard, the tiger, the wild swine, and the bear, and sometimes the wolf, and the hart'. He was realistic, however, recognising that in England, the situation was rather different and 'that in the hunting of red deer and fallow, might be a great part of similar exercise, used by noblemen, especially in forests, which be spacious'. For Castiglione, sport and exercise, in particular hunting, further provided an opportunity for the courtier to 'display one's skill and build up a good reputation, especially with the crowd which the courtier always has to humour'. Hunting, by being noncompetitive in such an obvious way, was a more sensible option for a king for whom physical presence appears to have meant a great deal.

Greyhounds nearly became extinct during times of famine in the Middle Ages. They were saved by clergymen who protected them and bred them for the nobility. From this point on, they came to be considered the dogs of the aristocracy. In the tenth century, King Howel of Wales made killing a greyhound punishable by death. King Canute of England established the Forest Laws in 1014, reserving large areas of the country for hunting by the nobility. Only such persons could own greyhounds; any "meane person" (commoner) caught owning a greyhound would be severely punished and the dog's toes "lawed" (mutilated) to prevent it from hunting. The value of a Greyhound exceeded that of a serf, and the punishment for causing death of a Greyhound was equivalent to the punishment for murder. In 1066 William the Conqueror introduced even more stringent forest laws. Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, made unauthorized hunting in private forests a felony punishable by death if the offense was committed at night. Commoners who hunted with greyhounds in defiance of these laws favored dogs whose coloring made them harder to spot: black, red, fawn, and brindle. Nobles by contrast favored white and spotted dogs who could be spotted and recovered more easily if lost in the forest. It became common among the English aristocracy to say, "You could tell a gentleman by his horses and his greyhounds".

The greyhound is the first breed of dog mentioned in English literature. The monk in Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century The Canterbury Tales reportedly spent great sums on his greyhounds:

'...Greyhounds he hadde as swifte as fowel in flight;
Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare...'

Edmund de Langley's Mayster of Game, AD 1370, describes the ideal greyhound:

'...The Greihound should have a long hede and somedele grete, ymaked in the manner of a luce; a good large mouth and good sessours, the one again the other, so that the nether jaws passe not them above, ne that thei above passe not him neither.
The neck should be grete and long, and bowed as a swanne's neck.
Her shuldres as a roebuck; the for leggs streght and gret ynow, and nought to hind legges; the feet straught and round as a catte, and great cleas; the boones and the joynetes of the cheyne grete and hard as the chyne of an hert; the thighs great and squarred as an hare; the houghs steight, and not crompyng as of an oxe.
A catte's tayle, making a ring at eend, but not to hie.
Of all manere of Greihondes there byn both good and evel; Natheless the best hewe is rede falow, with a black moselle...

Langley presented this book to the future King Henry V of England. Henry reportedly was a big fan of greyhounds; perhaps William Shakespeare knew this when, two centuries later, in his play Henry V, he had the king comparing people to coursing greyhounds in his speech to his troops just before the Battle of Harfleur:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start.
The game's afoot.

Coursing races, with dogs chasing live rabbits, became popular during the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth had Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, draw up rules judging competitive coursing. These rules established such things as the hare's head start and the ways in which the two hounds' speed, agility and concentration would be judged against one another. Winning was not neccesarily dependent on catching the hare (although this did earn a high score). Often the hare escaped. Wagers were commonly placed on the racing dogs. These rules were still in effect when the first official coursing club was founded in 1776 at Swaffham, Norfolk, England. The rules of coursing have not changed a great deal since this time.

The English sport of coursing - hunting by sight instead of scent - has roots in ancient Greece, and is a sport valued for the contest more than the catching of the prey. The Greek historian Arrian wrote: "For coursers, such at least as are true sportsmen, do not take their dogs out for the sake of catching a hare, but for the contest and sport of coursing, and are glad if the hare meets with an escape".

Unlike Elizabeth, King James I preferred hunting to hard work. He was an avid fan of greyhound coursing. Having heard about the strength of the local hares, he brought his greyhounds to the village of Fordham near the border of Suffolk and Cambridge. This was not a public exhibition, but a private competition between the King's greyhounds observed by James and his court. He stayed at the Griffin Inn in the nearby town of Newmarket. He enjoyed the coursing there so much that he built a hunting lodge in Newmarket. To maintain the quality of hunting, in 1619 he ordered the release of 100 hares and 100 partridges every year at Newmarket. Races between the horses of his followers became as important as the matches between the King's greyhounds. This began the tradition of competitive racing in Newmarket.

Dr. Caius' notes to the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, written in 1570, describe the appearance and abilities of the English greyhound:

'...Of the dog, called the greyhound; in Latin, Leporarius [literally, "hare-hunter"]. Here is another kind of dog which, for his incredible swiftness, is call Leporarius, a greyhound; because the principal service of them dependeth and consisteth in starting and hunting the hare: which dogs likewise are embued with no less strength than lightness in maintenance of game, in serving the chase, in taking the buck, the hare, the doe, the fox, and other beasts of semblable kind ordained for the game of hunting. But more or less, each one according to the measure and proportion of their desire; and as might and hability of their bodies will permit and suffer. For it is a spare and bare kind of dog (of flesh, but not of bone); some are of a greater sort and some lesser; some are smooth skinned and some are curled. The bigger therefore are appointed to hunt the bigger beasts, and the smaller serve to hunt the smaller accordingly...'


In the late sixteenth century, Gervase Markham wrote that greyhounds

'...are of all dogs whatsoever the most noble and princely, strong, nimble, swift and valiant; and though of slender and very fine proportions, yet so well knit and coupled together, and so seconded with spirit and mettle, that they are master of all other dogs whatsoever....'

Hunting gifts were frequently given in order to cement social relationships between individuals. The Lisle family, whose letters provide us with the most complete view of a noble family's gift-giving activities, gave venison to friends and relations, but also to a wide variety of people, from the King downwards. Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, himself sent a large number of 'puetts', or small wild birds, to Henry VIII in Jul 1535, which apparently kept Henry 'merry' in Waltham Forest that summer. Honor, lady Lisle, in May 1534, sent the queen dottrells. In such cases, the Lisles were demonstrating their loyalty and deference, while to those lower down the social scale, they like other prominent landowners, demonstrated their 'good lordship'. Thomas Cranmer sent a buck and 'a noble of your purse towards the bakyng and seasonyng of hym' to the master of Jesus College, Cambridge, as part of his good will as the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Substantial nobles might show their good lordship to the poorer members of the community by spicing up their special communal meals with venison, or return favours from their local communities with such gifts. During the 'gresse seson' of the first year of Henry VIII's reign (early summer 1509), the Howards sent a buck to 'the towne of Donwyche' -- a symbol of the Howard's authority over the townsfolk.

By the close of the sixteenth century, the world had changed significantly. Feudalism had ended allowing commoners freedom of movement unknown for a thousand years. City dwellers increased in number. By this time many more people were able to own game dogs such as greyhounds. As the number of middle class persons expanded, so did the need for cleared land. Dense forests and swamps were giving way to planting land, pastures, and towns. These new fields brought infiltration by hares, foxes, and badgers. The need to exterminate unwanted animals led to breeding of cast-off greyhounds (and other breeds) of the upper classes.

The greyhound was used as an emblem, often in tombs, at the feet of the effigies of gentlemen, symbolizing the knightly virtues (faith), occupations (hunting) and generally the aristocratic way of life. Where tombs are concerned, the greyhound always was associated with knighthood (along with the lion, symbolizing strength) and never with ladies, who generally were associated with the little lap-dog (symbol of marital faithfulness and domestic virtue).

It is believed that wild turkeys were first brought to England in 1526. Now every cook in England knows the cook time for turkey since it is always at the center of the table on Christmas.


History of the Greyhound Through the Ages

Williams, James: Hunting, Hawking and the Early Tudor Gentleman History Today, 00182753, Aug 2003, Vol. 53, Issue 8

Ridley, Jasper. The Tudor Age. New York: The Overlook Press, 1988

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