James Williams considers hunting as the ideal pastime for the nobility in the sixteenth century.
'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.'
WHEN, IN 1517, a NOW anonymous gentleman expressed this view to Richard Pace, the great humanist may have been exasperated, but certainly not surprised. It was a familiar sentiment in early Tudor England: despite the protests of a few humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, hunting was deemed by most to be not only a symbol of knight hood, but an activity that marked out the true gentleman. But what was it about hunting and hawking that made them appropriate pastimes for the early Tudor gentleman, and why did they retain this position?
For most commentators who referred to hunting and hawking in their written work, field sports were thoroughly moral occupations. In the immense body of chivalric literature produced during the early sixteenth century, hunting is always associated with ideal models of kingship and knighthood. Malory's tales of King Arthur, and popular chivalric tales about such heroes as Bevis of Hamptoun and Oliver of Castile, feature hunting as a worthy activity.
Field sports provided a moral means of escape. For Henry VIII, hunting provided a chance to escape from the cares of politics with a few friends:
Pastime with good company
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 the Earl of Hertfordshire, 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 Pointz, against following a political career:
This maketh me at home to hounte
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. Idleness, in this case referred to as sloth, is one of the chief ills thereby corrected by this ideal Persian king:
He [the king] then with most diligence set others forward, beholding who hunte valiently, and reforming them whom he saw negligent or slothful.
In practical terms, hunting was justified primarily in terms of its value as a training for warfare which was still regarded as the gentleman's principal role. For Ramon Lull, in a book that Caxton brought to the early Tudor reading public, 'Knightes ougt to hunte at hertes, at bores and other wyld bestes, for in doynge these thynges the knyghtes exercyse them to armes.'
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 Montegew 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 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.
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.' Each clearly saw hunting as an essential element in a well rounded education for any gentleman of the court. Indeed, failing to allow one's son to hunt could be seen as a failure of responsibility. 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, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, 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.
For Giustiniani, the Venetian ambassador to England in the early years of Henry VIII's reign, ability at hunting was what made a gentleman 'very accomplished'.
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 such as the Northumberland household book 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. Children's etiquette manuals such as the mid-fifteenth-century Boke of Nurture describe the importance to a young nobleman of the ability 'to carve meat elegantly', because elegance was a prerequisite for the successful courtier in England and Europe. It describes how the pupil carver was taught how to 'Venesoun bake, of boor or other venure/Kut it in the pastey, & lay hit on his trenchure'. How much of the precise etiquette of this period remained by the early sixteenth century is unclear, but certainly the products of venison-carving were well known to the early modern courtier. At the princely tables of Renaissance Italy, the stag was supposed to be dissected following purely heraldic divisions. As this left the unfortunate prince with the least tasty portion of the animal (the breast), practice may not always have followed precept. In early Tudor England carving venison would clearly still have been a concern in the education of the young nobleman, made necessary by the large quantities of the meat that were provided for noble and royal tables by both professional and amateur hunting.
The Boke of Nurture also noted that venison was one of the many dishes essential in the preparation of any gentleman's 'Dynere of Flesche', and it clearly continued to be an important part of the diet of any household of the early modern gentry. Deer and swans were supposed to be taken out of the various parks of the Earl of Northumberland 'for the household yerely.' Venison and its parts, such as the delicacy of the 'nomblis', or 'umbles', the kidneys and its surrounding meat, were frequently referred to in medieval hunting manuals, and are occasionally mentioned specifically in early Tudor correspondence. In November 1519, one John Grene sent his mistress, Lady Lucy of Charlecote, Warwickshire, three couple of coneys and a mallard and a doe with the shoulders and the 'nombylls', clearly a delicacy worth mentioning. In contemporary literature, the nombles were a symbol of knightly luxury. When, in one of the Robin Hood tales published during the period, a knight is feasted by the outlaw, he is amazed by the richness of his meals:
Robin and all his fair men.
Venison was certainly regarded by some to be appropriate food for the gentlemen and the elite. Erasmus joked that noblemen 'will swear that venison is meat for princes, and that their living upon it makes them as great as emperors.' Red deer, along with various wildfowl and fish, were all important elements in the menus of the royal court of Henry VIII. The household of Sir Thomas Le Strange of Hunstanton was particularly partial to duck, dottrells (a species of water foul), herons and rabbits. For this purpose, keepers of parks, rabbit warrens and heronries were ordered to produce venison and wildfoul for their masters' tables. On November 30th, 1541, for example, the keeper (or his deputy) of Woodstock Park was ordered by Henry VIII to 'sle iii does of this season and the same seasonable to his graces manor of hampton court'.
Park keepers not only provided venison for their masters' tables, but also for those of their masters' friends and acquaintances, and gifts of venison can provide a useful barometer of the state of relations between people of more equal status. Gentry families who owned game parks frequently sent venison to those in positions of power, their friends and relations in the county or further afield. The Lisle family frequently gave deer from their park of Umberleigh in Somerset. Whether it came from forests or private parks venison was not (officially) available on the open market, and represented a very valuable gift, even when the recipients had plenty of deer of their own. Thus, when individuals are left off the list, this can in some cases be interpreted as evidence of local unfriendliness. The game roll of Framlingham Park in Suffolk, kept by the park keeper, Richard Chambyr, lists all the animals that were killed from the deer-herd, and for what reason. Most were killed and given as presents to friends and aquaintances of the Howard family who held the park at the time, along with officers such as the auditor, as part of the Howards' good will. The neighbouring Brandons, who had fallen out with the Howard family at this time (1518), are noticeably absent from the roll.
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 Lisle himself sent a large number of 'puetts', or small wild birds, to Henry VIII in July 1535, which apparently kept Henry 'merry' in Waltham Forest that summer. Honour 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'. As part of his good will as the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, 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. 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.
Hunting and hawking were popular among the gentlemen of early Tudor England because they enjoyed it, but there was more to this interest than the obsession of the enthusiast. Both in the literature of chivalry, which underwent a clear revival, and that of the new humanist educators, hunting was recommended as an appropriate and useful activity. There were two responses: one emphasised traditional, medieval ideals, the other was the new, Renaissance approach. But the role of hunting in these two respects may be viewed with interest, at the end of a period in England covering the fifteenth century, which saw a growing concern among commentators that there was a decline in standards of gentry behaviour. Culturally, therefore, gentlemen hunted because it was expected of them. In practice, however, they went hunting because it was a valuable means of cementing or developing relations with friends, neighbours, social superiors and subordinates.
S. Anglo, ed., Chivalry in the Renaissance (Woodbridge, 1990); G.W. Bernard, 'The rise of William Compton, early Tudor courtier', English Historical Review 96 (1981); D. MacCulloch, Suffolk and the Tudors (Oxford, 1986); N. Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London, 1984); S. Thurley, 'The sports of kings', in D. Starkey, ed., Henry VIII: a European Court in England (London, 1991); G. Walker, 'Skelton, Wolsey and the English Nobility', in G. Bernard, ed., The Tudor Nobility (London, 1992).
(Above) Elizabeth I is given the privilege of slaughtering a deer, from George Turbeville's Book of Hunting (1572).
Hunting, music, poetry and romance are the accoutrements of the noble lifestyle in this Flemish tapestry of the early 16th century.
The wild boar was still one of the most prized prey. Sketch by Antonio Pisanello (d. 1455).
The royal parks of Windsor are depicted in this 1607 map by John Norden as teeming with deer.
Sir Robert Cheseman (1485-1547), courtier and gentleman of Middlesex, by Hans Holbein.
Henry VIII's hunting knives, decorated with scenes of boar hunts and the capture of Boulogne in 1544, and made by Spanish smith Diego de Calas.
A falconer from one of a number of 15th-century printed books on hawking and hunting.
A royal picnic from Turbeville's Book of Hunting (1575).
Henry VIII's palace at Nonsuch in Surrey, painted in the early 17th century and with a deer hunt in full cry.
The Tudor hunting lodge at Newark Park, Gloucestershire, was partially rebuilt by James Wyatt in the 18th century.
By James Williams
James Williams is a researcher at the Centre for Research into Quality, University of Central England.