Read CHAPTER IX - SEPTEMBER of Old English Sports, free online book, by Peter Hampson Ditchfield, on

“Nor is there hawk which mantleth her on pearch,
Whether high tow’ring or accoasting low,
But I the measure of her flight do search,
And all her prey, and all her diet know.” SPENSER.

Hawking Michaelmas Bull and Bear-baiting.

Of all old English sports hawking is one of the most ancient and the most fashionable. It has almost died out now, but there are one or two hawking enthusiasts who have endeavoured to revive this old English pastime, and on the Berkshire Downs a hawking party was seen a few years ago. Hawking consists in the training and flying of hawks for the purpose of catching other birds. Kings and noblemen, barons and ladies of feudal times, used to delight in following the sport on horseback, and to watch their favourite birds towering high to gain the upward flights in order to swoop down upon some heron, crane, or wild duck, and bear it to the ground. Persons of high rank always carried their hawks with them wherever they went, and in old paintings the hawk upon the wrist of a portrait was the sign of noble birth. The sport was practised by our Saxon forefathers before the Normans came, and the first trained hawk in England is said to have been sent by St. Boniface, the “Apostle of the Germans,” as a present to Ethelbert, King of Kent, in the eighth century. The history of the sport of the kings who loved to take part in it, and of their adventures, would require a volume, and my space only allows me to give you a brief account of the manner in which the sport was conducted.

I may mention that before the reign of King John only kings and noblemen were allowed to take part in hawking; but in the forest Charter, which that monarch was compelled to sign, every freeman was permitted to have his own hawks and falcons. The falconer, who took care of the hawks, was a very important person. The chief falconer of the King of France received four thousand florins a year, besides a tax upon every hawk sold in the kingdom. The Welsh princes assigned the fourth place of honour in their courts to this officer; but this proud distinction had its responsibilities, and this high official was only allowed to take three draughts from his horn, lest his brain should not be as clear as it ought to be, and the precious birds might be neglected.

Sometimes the hawking party went on foot, carrying long poles to enable them to jump the ditches and to follow the course. Henry VIII. nearly lost his life on one occasion through falling (his pole having broken) into a bog, from which he was rescued by one John Moody, who happened to see the accident. But mounted on gallant steeds the lords and ladies were accustomed to follow their favourite pastime, and amid the blowing of horns and laughter and shoutings they rode along, galloping up-hill and down-hill, with their eyes fixed upon the birds, which were battling or chasing each other high overhead. The hawk did not always win the fight: sometimes a crafty heron would turn his long bill upwards just as the hawk was descending upon him, and pierce his antagonist through the body.

Great skill and perseverance were required in training these birds. When they were not flying after their prey, they were hoodwinked, i.e. their heads were covered with caps, which were often finely embroidered. On their legs they had strings of leather, called jesses, with rings attached. When a hawk was being trained, a long thread was fastened to these rings to draw the bird back again, but when it was well educated, it would obey the voice of the falconer and return when it had performed its flight. It was necessary for the bird to know its master very intimately, so a devoted follower of the sport would always carry his hawk about with him, and the two were as inseparable as a Highland shepherd and his dog. The sportsman would feed his bird and train it daily, and in an old book of directions he is advised “at night to go to the mews, and take it from its perch, and set it on his fist, and bear it all the night,” in order to be ready for the morrow’s sport.

The mews were the buildings where the hawks were kept when moulting, the word “mew” being a term used by falconers to signify to moult, or cast feathers; and the King’s Mews, near Charing Cross, was the place where the royal hawks were kept. This place was afterwards enlarged, and converted into stables for horses; but the old name remained, and now most stables in London are called mews, although the word is derived from falconry, and the hawks have long since flown away.

The sport declined at the end of the seventeenth century, when shooting with guns became general, but our language has preserved some traces of this ancient pastime. When a person is blinded by deceit, he is said to be “hoodwinked,” and this word is derived from the custom of placing a hood over the hawk’s eyes before it was released from restraint.

On the Feast of St. Michael, or Michaelmas, the tenants were in the habit of bringing presents of a fat goose to their landlord, in order to make him kind and lenient in the matters of rent, repairs, and the renewal of leases, and the noble landlords used to entertain their tenants right royally in the great halls of their ancestral mansions, roast goose forming a standing dish of the repast. This is probably the origin of the custom which prevails at the present time of eating geese at Michaelmas.

When the harvest was over, and the farmers were not so busy, they often amused themselves by the cruel sport of baiting a bull. An old gentleman who lived at Wokingham was so fond of this savage pastime that he left in his will a sum of money for the purpose of providing every year two bulls to be baited for the amusement of the people of his native town. The bulls are still bought, but they are put to death in a more merciful manner, and the meat given to the poor. Amongst the hills in Yorkshire there is a small village, through which a brook runs, crossed by two bridges, and having a stone wall on each side. Thus, when the bridges were stopped up, there was formed a wall-encircled space, into which, once a year, at least, a poor bull was placed, to be worried to death by dogs, and within the memory of men now living this cruel sport has been carried on.

Nor was this only a sport for ignorant rustics; kings and noble courtiers, and even ladies, used to frequent the bear-gardens of the metropolis, and witness with delight the slaughter of bulls, and bears, and dogs. Erasmus tells us that in the reign of Henry VIII. “many herds of bears were maintained in this country for the purpose of baiting.” Queen Elizabeth commanded bears, bulls, and the ape to be baited in her presence, and James I. was not averse to the sight. The following is a description of this barbarous entertainment “There is a place built in the form of a theatre, which serves for baiting of bulls and bears. They are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs; but not without risk to the dogs from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other.” Even horses were sometimes baited, and sometimes asses. Evelyn, in his Diary, thus describes the strange sight “June 16th, 1670. I went with some friends to the bear-garden, where was cock-fighting, dog-fighting, bear and bull-baiting, it being a famous day for all these butcherly sports, or rather barbarous cruelties. The bulls did exceedingly well, but the Irish wolf-dog exceeded, which was a tall greyhound, a stately creature indeed, who beat a cruel mastiff. One of the bulls tossed a dog full into a lady’s lap, as she sat in one of the boxes at a considerable height from the arena. Two poor dogs were killed, and so all ended with the ape on horseback, and I most heartily weary of the rude and dirty pastime, which I had not seen, I think, in twenty years before.” Foreigners, who have visited England in by-gone times, often allude scornfully to our forefathers’ barbarous diversions; but on the whole they seem rather to have enjoyed the sport. A Spanish nobleman was taken to see a poor pony baited with an ape fastened on its back; and he wrote “to see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable!” But enough has been said of these terrible and monstrous cruelties. Happily for us they no longer exist, and together with cock-fighting, throwing at cocks and hens, and other barbarous amusements, cannot now be reckoned among our sports and pastimes. It was a happy thing for us when the conscience of the nation was aroused, and the law stepped in to put an end to such disgraceful scenes which were witnessed in the Paris Garden at Southwark, or in the rude bull-run of a Yorkshire village. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was not known in the days of bear-baiting and cock-throwing.