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Deer parks and hunting

Article Index

  1. Deer parks and hunting
  2. Parks and hunting
  3. Parks in the Later Middle Ages
  4. Sources and images
  5. All Pages

Introduction

Hunting has long been one of the activities which marks out the elite. Via the control of resources like hunting grounds and quarry, the exercise of patronage - the right to hunt and gifts of meat - and the employment of ritualised behaviour, kings and aristocrats emphasised their special status and otherness. Hunting also provided what was thought to be the best possible training in mounted warfare: how to read the country during a high-speed pursuit over varied ground, how to give orders to other riders, and how to use weapons to kill. Even today, officers of the Household regiments in the British Army are encouraged to foxhunt for just these reasons.

Historians, using written and pictorial sources, are able to track changing hunting practices back through the fox hunting which has dominated the last 200 years to the much longer history of deer and stag hunting. As we shall see, much to do with the hunt was formalised by the Normans, but sources like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - the contemporary record of the doings of Anglo-Saxon kings and churchmen - make it clear that the cross-country pursuit of deer was a favourite activity of the English elite long before 1066, and that parks and forests were present in the English landscape before 1066.

Before the Anglo-Saxons

There are very few written sources for Roman Britain to tell us whether the Romans (or perhaps more accurately Romanised Britons) hunted, although intriguingly one of the few accounts to survive from that time records hunting dogs as one of Britain's exports. But most evidence necessarily must come from archaeology, and especially from the analysis of animal and bird bones found in excavations. These will show what was present in the environment, what was butchered, and what was eaten. If hunting was engaged in and, as later, principally by the elite, what we would expect to find is the bones of deer, and perhaps boars and other ‘beasts of the chase' (as they were later known) on high-status sites like villas. In fact, as yet this is a very little researched subject, although Dr Naomi Sykes (University of Nottingham) has suggested that the presence of fallow deer bones at the 1st century AD Roman palace at Fishbourne (Sussex) may indicate that there may have been a park associated with it, as advocated by Columella, the Roman writer on agriculture.

Hunting in Anglo-Saxon England

As already mentioned, the written sources do, incidentally, refer to royal hunting. The best-known occurs in a Life of Archbishop Dunstan, and relates how in about 940 King Edmund was hunting in a wood on a mountain of great height - in fact, probably along the lip of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, overlooking one of his palaces. The deer he was hunting was driven over the precipice into a great abyss, and the hunting dogs followed. The king's horse did not check its headlong flight, but, realising the danger and that only God could save him, Edmund rapidly confessed his sins - and duly his horse stopped just short of the edge. Animal bone assemblages show increasing evidence in the mid- to late Anglo-Saxon period of deer hunting, and the sticking of boar is also documented.

Parks and Hunting in the Middle Ages

Twenty years ago I summarised what was known about deer parks and hunting in the Middle Ages in a book edited by Grenville Astill and Annie Grant called The Countryside of Medieval England (Basil Blackwell, 1988). While there has been a good deal of work since on individual hunting grounds, and on faunal remains (bones from archaeological excavations), what was written then still holds good, and bears repeating here. The only major change in thinking - flagged up in the best-yet overview of the subject, Robert Liddiard's edited volume The Medieval Park: New Perspectives (Windgather Press, 2007) - is an increasing doubt among park historians about whether deer were actually hunted on horseback in parks, rather than being kept within them and the selected animal then being released to be chased cross-country. Modern data record that red deer, for instance, can run for up to 22 miles when being pursued: within a park that would mean an awful lot of going round in circles!