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Deer parks and hunting

Deer parks and hunting


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!

Parks and hunting

A park differed from other demesne woodland mainly in that it contained deer and was accordingly securely fenced. Woodland enclosures or ‘deer folds' were found in late-Saxon England, for instance at Ongar (Essex), but parks, like forest law, were essentially a Norman introduction (Cantor and Hatherly 1979, 71). A park provided a lord with a ready supply of fresh venison, a meat that was seen, at least by the aristocracy itself, as reserved for its tables and especially the feast. As important as the meat itself was the way in which it was taken, the park being an enclosed hunting ground, where the pleasures of the chase could be enjoyed by the lord and his chosen companions. Throughout the Middle Ages deer hunting was the preserve of the king and the aristocracy, and the acquisition of a park was one of the marks, at least in the eyes of its creator, that he was joining their ranks.

The Domesday Book records 35 parks, and there were probably a few more, like Bramber (Sussex), that went unnoticed (Cantor 1982, 76). It also records a number of ‘hays' (literally meaning hedges) especially in the West Midlands. These seem to have been the successors of late-Saxon deer folds, places where deer were temporarily enclosed before the hunt. They were perhaps also breeding enclosures (Darby 1973, 55; Rowley 1986, 149). Over the next century, while the number of parks increased, forest law seems to have limited their proliferation. But from the early 13th century their number began to increase rapidly as the area under forest law was reduced. Lords' incomes were rising and with them their desire to invest and enjoy their new-found wealth in such things as hunting parks. Many lords found it necessary to purchase a licence from the king permitting them to construct a park. There seems to have been no hard and fast rule about when a licence would be demanded, although the closer the park was to a royal forest the more likely it was.

Wood pasture in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire. Copyright Paul Stamper.Wood pasture in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire. Copyright Paul Stamper.By the early 14th century there were perhaps 3,200 parks in England (Steane 1984, 168), varying in size from just a few hectares to several hundred. The main concentrations were in the West Midlands, Staffordshire and Worcestershire, the home counties, Essex, Herefordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Sussex. Relatively few parks lay in East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire and in the more remote parts of Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham, Devon and Cornwall. Within individual counties parks tended to be most common in the areas with most woodland (Cantor 1983, 4 - 5).

Invariably parks contained a mixture of woodland and grassland. While the former provided cover for the deer and a forest ambience for the hunter, it was the latter that was the more important, as deer are primarily grass feeders. Rackham has argued that medieval parks can be divided into two distinct categories according to the way in which these two resources were mixed. The first he calls the wood pasture park, where trees and grass were intermixed. The second, where the production of wood was maximised, was the compartmental park, and here grassland launds or glades were kept separate from the enclosed and usually coppiced woodland (Rackham, O. 1986, 126 - 6).

The pale at Moccas, Herefordshire. Copyright: Paul Stamper.This photograph shows the pale (boundary fence) at Moccas, Herefordshire. Copyright Paul Stamper. The most distinctive feature of a park was its boundary, generally a pale of tall, cleft oak stakes set in a broad, high earth bank with an internal ditch. Sometimes between the bank and ditch there was an open strip of ground, known as the freeboard, which allowed access to the pale so that repairs could be made. Sometimes a quickset hedge was used in place of a pale or, in areas where stone was readily available, a stone wall. Woodstock Park (Oxfordshire) had a stone wall by the early 12th century (Harvey, J. 1974, 15), and examples can still be seen at Beckley (Oxfordshire), Moulton, (Northamptonshire) and Newton Blossomville (Buckinghamshire). But, whatever the medium, the boundary wall had to be formidable, for deer can leap up to three metres vertically or six metres horizontally, and the upkeep of the pale was a constant and considerable expense for the lord with a park. Sometimes it was made a customary work or labour service, particularly where tenants enjoyed common rights within the park (for instance, VCH 1988, 106). As early as the 13th century the repair of the wall of the king's park at Moulton was largely the responsibility of the surrounding townships, and by the 16th century these obligations were recorded by stones bearing the townships' names set into the wall (Steane 1975, 213).

In the early Middle Ages the king was considered to own all the deer in the forest, and therefore the stocking of a park with deer necessitated his aid or compliance. Many grants are recorded from the king of live deer - usually of several times more does than bucks - to stock parks. The long-distance carriage of livestock was clearly routine, and in the fourteenth century Windsor Great Park , for instance, was stocked from the Chute Forest in Wiltshire (Cantor and Hatherley 1979, 73). In other cases the king might authorize the construction of a deer leap, which allowed deer to enter but not leave the park, consisting of an external ramp and an internal pit in a gap in the pale. Clearly such devices could steadily reduce the number of royal deer running freely in the forest; their construction was strictly controlled, and some licences to impark specifically prohibited them.

Plan of park at Willey, Shropshire.

Plan of the park at Willey, Shropshire. Copyright Paul Stamper.

A parker was usually employed to care for and oversee the park. A house or lodge was often provided for him within the pale where, like any good herdsman, he would be in constant contact with his charges. Presumably it was also hoped that his presence would deter poachers. Like so many contemporary isolated woodland dwellings, lodges were often surrounded by a shallow moat. No one knows why this should have been, but perhaps a moated residence was felt to add to the atmosphere and illusion of the park as a milieu that was wooded and mysterious, yet above all distinctly aristocratic. To what extent there was a sensibility towards a beautiful natural landscape in the middle ages is difficult to grasp, that it could exist is demonstrated by the construction in 1354 of a balcony at Woodstock Palace to give Princess Isabella a view of the park (p7; Brown et al. 1963, 1016 - 17).

As the size of the parks varied so did the size of the herds they contained, although almost invariably it was the fallow deer that were kept (p165; Rackham, O. 1986). In Cornwall the Duchy had seven parks in the Middle Ages; in 1337 the two smallest, attached to Launceston and Taunton Castles, had just 15 and 42 deer respectively, while the largest, Restormel, had 300 (Hatcher, 1970, 179). The largest parks were capable of supplying great quantities of venison. In Woodstock Park 200 does were killed in 1250 and then salted down and sent, presumably packed in barrels, to Winchester for Christmas and to Westminster for the feast of St Edward (5 January). These would have been culled by the king's huntsmen, who were usually also responsible for taking any deer that the king may grant to others. Occasionally others might be permitted to hunt in the king's parks; in 1444, for instance, Henry VI granted Abingdon Abbey the right to take four bucks and two does a year from Woodstock, in lieu of the abbey's loss of hunting rights in the Windsor Forest (Cal. Pat. Rolls 1441 - 6, 277).

spetchley_ps_5097_lowPhotograph of the deer park at Spetchley in Leicestershire. Fallow deer are grouped by the trees on the left and right. Copyright Paul Stamper. Of course, those who hunted were the people who were legally empowered to do so and, while Robin Hood may have been a fictional character, his type was familiar, and the judicial records provide many examples of the criminal band. Like Hood's ‘merry men,' many band members were outlaws - fugitives from justice - and lived in forest areas. In Feckenham Forest in the 1280s Geoffrey du Park - whose name suggests a long familiarity with woods and deer - and a band that at times numbered 100 men established themselves in a stronghold at Gannow (Worcestershire). Typical was the presence in the band of a renegade priest and the way in which it was joined for certain expeditions by members of the gentry, ‘vigrouse gentz' from Sherwood. The crimes were committed by the band were wide-ranging and violent. They murdered, burned and looted in villages and on the highway, and as much from the very poor as from the rich (West, 1964, 42). While other aspects of the story of Robin Hood may have been familiar to the balladeer's audience, his social discrimination would have rung false. Venison clearly made up a good part of the diet of du Park and his men, and many deer from Feckenham fell prey to them. Less spectacular, but far more frequent and widespread, was the taking of a single deer by individuals or small groups of family or friends. Detection by the forest or manorial officials of such offences was difficult, and the proportion of offenders caught and presented at court was presumably low. Even so, 200 named poachers were presented in Cannock Forest and 250 in Kinver at the three Staffordshire eyres in the late 13th century, and in the Dean over 300 at the eyres of 1270 and 1282, and in Rockingham over 230 in 1272 and 1286. Overall, it seems likely that as many deer were taken from the forest illegally at this time as legally (p. 165; Birrell 1982, 10).

While the hunting of the so-called lesser beasts of the chase - wolves, wildcats, badgers, foxes, hares, rabbits, pigeons, pheasants and partridges - is less frequently recorded, it was certainly popular. In areas under forest law manorial lords increasingly purchased the right of free warren, that is the right to hunt these animals across their own lands, and by the early 14th century there were probably as many manors with as without this privilege. For some, the acquisition of this right simply meant that they could now legally control vermin and supplement the household diet with game. Others, though, clearly enjoyed the chase, albeit of the fox rather than the deer, as much as the king. Chaucer's monk, for instance (Coghill 1960, 23 - 4),

...rode the country; hunting was his sport...

Greyhounds he had, as swift as birds, to course.

Hunting a hare or riding at a fence

Was all his fun, for he spared no expense.

Neither was hunting entirely a male preserve; one of the earliest recorded sporting prelates was the Abbess of Barking (Essex), who in 1221 was permitted to hunt foxes and hares in Havering Park (Essex) (VCH 1907b, 118).

The breeding of rabbits in specially constructed warrens - long, low, earthworks sometimes called pillow mounds - rapidly gained popularity between 1230 and 1250. Warrens were often sited in parks, and in 1413 the scholars of Oxford were banned from entering Woodstock Park because of the nuisance they had made of themselves there by poaching deer, rabbits and hares (Bond n.d.). By the early 1300s rabbits were numerous, warrens were valuable, and there was an export trade in skins (Veale 1957). Rabbits were not the only beasts kept in warrens; in 1372 the Duke of Lancaster's warren at Higham Ferrers (Northamptonshire) also contained hares, pheasants and partridges. It was surrounded by a wall, presumably as much to keep poachers out as the stock in. Certainly in the former capacity it proved unsuccessful (Steane 1974, 179).

Other specialist demesne livestock farming sometimes took place within the relatively secure confines of the park. Parks had to have a water supply for the animals, and streams were frequently enlarged and dammed to form fishponds. The studs where war and other high quality specialist horses were bred were often in parks; in the 14th century the Earl of Arundel had important studs in parks near Oswestry and Clun in the Welsh Marches (VCH forthcoming) and the king had a stud in Woodstock Park. Woodstock also had an eyrie of falcons, and it had earlier housed Henry I's extraordinary royal menagerie which apparently included lions, lynxes, camels and a porcupine (Bond n.d.). Another royal park, Windsor, contained a herd of wild cattle (silvestres) (VCH 1907a, 344). When the lords created parks they sought, whenever possible, to extinguish any common rights that might exist there, sometimes by granting rights in lieu elsewhere. However, in 1255 Lord Braose took a different course, allowing tenants to forgo attendance at his hundred courts in return for their giving up the right to hunt with dogs in some of his lands including Hookland Park (VCH 1988, 107). But in many parks rights persisted, and at times the parks were thrown open for grazing large numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs. In Beverley Park (North Yorkshire) 400 of the townsmen's animals were pastured in the summer of 1388 and 200 in the autumn, but they were excluded between 30 September and 1 May (VCH 1976, 6).

Parks in the Later Middle Ages

Photograph of the deer park at Moccas, Herefordshire, by Paul Stamper.Photograph of the deer park at Moccas, Herefordshire. Copyright Paul Stamper.

In the early 14th century the era of high farming and agrarian expansion began to draw to a close. Subtle long-term changes in the economic cycle were accelerated and overwhelmed by a series of catastrophic agricultural crises in the second decade of the century and by the Black Death of 1348 to 1349 in which at least one-third of the population died (p 208). The second half of that century was no less fearful for contemporaries than the first, with major outbreaks of plague in 1362 to 1363, 1369 and 1375, which prevented the recovery of population levels and reinforced the trends of social and economic change that had begun in the time of men's grandfather's (Hatcher, 1977). England became greener as arable land was put down to pasture, and fields on unprofitable and poor soils were abandoned to return to scrub and in due course to some form of woodland. Lords, as much as peasants, had to adapt to the altered circumstances. As wages and other costs rose many lords were unwilling or unable to afford the luxury of a park keeper to manage what was anyway an unprofitable use of land. An accurate calculation of a manor's profitability was perhaps achieved only on the larger and administratively more advanced estates in the Middle Ages (Harvey, P.D.A. 1984, 28 - 9). Even so, lords must have been generally aware that a park tended to be a constant drain on their purse rather than a regular source of income. The Duke of Cornwall, for instance, derived little income from his seven parks, and in the 14th and 15th centuries they ran at a continual net loss (Hatcher 1970, 180). Over the century as a whole some parks were dismantled, while others became less specialised and ceased to be solely deer farms and hunting grounds. Yet, conversely, at the same time other parks were greatly enlarged as they absorbed poor land that the lord found unleaseable or not worth farming more intensively (Cantor 1982, 77).

Increasingly parks came to be used for stock fattening, either by lords or lessees. In 1385 to 1386 the lord of Walsall manor drew no income from the herbage in his park as it was enclosed to protect its wood and for fattening 20 heifers and poultry or game birds (Cantor 1965, p.5). In Bowland Forest, on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the forest's two parks at Leagram and Radholme had ceased to be effective refuges for deer by the 16th century and their pales were in disrepair. It had by then long been the custom for the parkers to take leases of pasture in their parks, either for their own stock or to sub-let to others (Porter 1975, 48).

It is also noticeable that by the mid-14th century parks not uncommonly contained some arable land, and thenceforward lords seem to have been increasingly willing to put at least a part of their parks down to the plough. The reasons are complex and varied, but underlying all was the attempt to keep up income. In Finchingfield Park (Essex) eight hectares of rough, gorse-covered land were assarted in 1340 to 1341 and put down to cereals, mainly oats (Britnell 1977). In 1347 to 1348, on the very eve of the Black Death, 21 days were expended in Petworth Park (Sussex) removing rabbit burrows so that peas could be sown, while in the Great Park there, oats were sown at the same time on newly assarted land (Salzman 1955, 6, 13, 35). By the end of the 14th century Kilton Park (Somerset) was divided into enclosures, some ploughed (VCH 1985b, 93).

Towards the end of the 15th century there was a fresh phase of park creation or enlargement as a fashion for large amenity parks grew amongst the greater gentry. These parks were usually larger than their predecessors, encompassing at least several 100 acres. Neither were these, as previously, isolated from the lords' house, but instead were an adjunct of it. Typical were the Bagworth and Kirby Muxloe parks in Leicestershire, both imparked by Lord Hastings in 1475 and both of about 800 hectares (Cantor 1971, 12). Part of the impetus behind such emparkments was the return of agricultural prosperity, which encouraged landlords to increase greatly the size of their herds of cattle and sheep, which could be kept within a park. Deer hunting, though, remained as popular at the end of the Middle Ages as it had been under the Norman kings, and while they might contain hundreds of sheep and cattle, parks remained primarily hunting grounds. In 1549 a Frenchman surmised that there were as many deer in England as people in France, while the widely travelled Andrew Boorde thought that England had as many parks as the rest of Europe put together. William Harrison thought that Elizabeth I alone had 200 (Hoskins 1976, 11, 230).

Some Tudor landlords depopulated villages in order that the landscape might be transformed into one great park. At Wilstrop (Yorkshire) the village of that name was depopulated in 1498 by its emparking landlord. The evicted tenants joined forces with some of the local gentry with whom the imparker had a long running feud and on several occasions attacked the park, uprooting the pale and its accompanying quickset hedge. One raid was by a 200-strong crowd who ‘hewid and kit doonn 100 walnottreis, and appeltries grafted ii or iii yere before,' suggesting that the lord's intention was not only to make a secure enclosure for sheep and deer but also a pleasing environment (Beresford, M.W. 1957, 205 - 7).

Predictably, poaching continued to trouble park owners from the king downwards. An act of 1485 to 1486 (Statutes of the Realm 2, 505 - 6) noted ‘tumultuous' hunting in forests, parks and warrens, and made hunting at night or in disguise - with a ‘blacked-up' face - illegal. A later act of Henry VII's reign further made it an offence to keep nets, known as deer-hays or buck-stalls, or to stalk deer without licence (Statutes of the Realm 2, 655). Such legislation marks the beginning of the evolution of the later game laws, laws that were to prove no more effective, and equally as unpopular, as the forest law they evolved from and replaced (Petit 1968, 43).


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