Falconry and the Tudors

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Brtish Library Additional MS 24098, f. 24v - See more at:

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Brtish Library Additional MS 24098, f. 24v

My novel opens with a scene on a hillside, where my heroine, Nan, is hoping to see her young merlin falcon make its first kill.

When I put the first few pages up for critique in my writing community, I had a reaction I didn’t expect. ‘I’m confused about the family. How rich are they? They seem to live in a big house so why does she have to hunt for food?’

Good question. So I’m going to devote this post to falconry, because it’s one of these areas where the Tudors are just very, very different from us.

In 21st century England falconry is a very niche hobby. (The only person I know who does it is my plumber, who flies Harris hawks.) Judging by Youtube it’s mainly practiced by middle-aged men in khaki combat gear. In Tudor England it was huge, and cut across all ages, genders and social classes. If you were poor, a goshawk could help you feed your family. If you were rich, a beautiful, big and rare bird could be a status symbol to help display your wealth, provide you with sport, and secure  you another interesting dish to serve at your table, not because you couldn’t afford to buy meat but because ‘Have some plover, I caught it myself!’ is fun in the same way as we get a kick from ‘I grew it myself.’ One of my favourite details in C.J.Sansom’s fantastically well-researched Tudor murder mystery Sovereign is the elderly lawyer who lives in a York townhouse with a goshawk, which he will have taken out to the fields at weekends to hunt with.

There’s a famous hawking treatise in an early printed book called The Book of St Albans, supposedly written by Dame Juliana Bernes, prioress of Sopwell Priory near St Albans in 1486. This gives a list of suitable birds to be owned by people of different ranks. It starts with an emperor – eagle, vulture and merlin, works its way down through an earl (peregrine falcon), lady (merlin) young man (hobby), poor man (tercel) and priest (sparrowhawk) and ending up, famously, with ‘a kestrel for a knave’, or servant.

Actually, the list wasn’t meant to be serious. (Apart from anything else eagles aren’t particularly effective birds for falconry and nobody ever flew vultures…) There’s a letter from 1533 (September 26th, Sir William Kingston to Lord Lisle) that says ‘The King hawks every day with goshawks and other hawks, that is to say, lanners, sparhawks and merlins’ – none of them suitable for a king according to the list! What it does show us, though, is that anyone might hunt with hawks and there was a wide variety of birds used. Some will have been more expensive, better hunters and cooler-looking than others. I like to think of a bunch of Tudor noblemen comparing new falcons the way modern people compare their new gadgets like phones. They’ll have argued about which birds were best (‘Merlins? They’re rubbish! You want to get hold of a saker!’) They’ll also have compared their bits of falconry kit: the falconer will have worn a thick leather gauntlet, sometimes richly decorated, to protect his or her wrist from the bird’s sharp claws, while the hawk will have had a hood, a bell and strips of leather called jesses to tether it by. In 2013 a Norfolk metal detectorist found a vervel, a tag for identifying the hawk. It was silver-gilt with the arms of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was married to Henry VII’s sister – we don’t know whether the tag fell off, or whether he lost a bird that day. Either way, someone might have been in trouble – silver-gilt isn’t cheap, and some birds were valuable, especially once they were trained – James IV paid £3.10s for a goshawk.

The Harris Hawk. Cool-looking but definitely not Tudor. Photo by Alan Vernon.

The Harris Hawk. Cool-looking but not Tudor. Or medieval. Or Arthurian. Photo by Alan Vernon.

Incidentally, if you see falconry portrayed on tv and film, what you’re usually seeing is a Harris hawk. Harris hawks are big and hence look good for the camera, and they’re among the easiest and cheapest birds to get or train. But they’re American. You can imagine what the falconers who watched the 2013 tv adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s fifteenth century novel The White Queen thought about that.

So how did you train a bird? What was the basic process?

You would start with a young bird, taken from the nest – people will have made money climbing trees and taking fledglings to sell. As the bird learned to fly you would make sure it always came back to you by rewarding it each time, letting it fly slightly further each time, first on a tether and then freely, until you were confident enough that it would come back, that you would let if off the leash. It was important to judge the bird’s diet correctly so that it was hungry enough to want food, or it might fly off. You then needed the bird to learn to hunt without it ever realising it could just fly off and fend for itself. So it had to associate bringing prey back to you with being rewarded. Sometimes a lure was used, with meat attached to it, to get the bird’s interest. Sometimes the bird was taken out to hunt with a more experienced, well-behaved hawk, so it could copy what it did!

The hawks had to be used to people, and for this reason people carried them everywhere. At a time when it was the height of bad manners to take your dog into dinner with you, hawking treatises advised owners to keep their birds on their fist at the table. Nuns were scolded by bishops for taking them into chapel. One aristocratic teenager used to keep merlins in her bedroom, where they soiled her gowns. If you imagine your town in medieval times, several of the people you might meet when walking down the street might be carrying falcons, and there’s a good chance there might be a perch somewhere in your house, if you’re not rich enough to have a whole collection of birds in a mews and a proper falconer to look after them.

A merlin. Definitely not rubbish, especially if you like eating partridge. Photo by Just A Prairie Boy

A merlin. Definitely not rubbish, especially if you like eating partridge. Photo by Just A Prairie Boy

The birds caught a whole range of prey, other birds and small mammals, depending on their size. Your goshawk might bring you a hare, or even a heron – remember, the Tudors ate a wider range of meats than we do. Merlins were known for taking skylarks, which was probably more use for its entertainment value than for catching you a decent dinner – they duel impressively high in the sky but you don’t get many mouthfuls out of a lark. However, they were effective hunters of partridges, too.

In the end, it was the advent of firearms that pushed falconry out of fashion, with shooting replacing hawking as a gentlemanly activity. By the seventeenth century, it was no longer part of the fabric of daily life the way had it been for many centuries before.

However, there’s an increasing number of places you can go to see trained falcons. One of my favourites is Bolton Castle in Wensleydale, where the (very cool) girl falconer flies hawks in the castle courtyard, and you can admire the plumage of the other birds in the mews.

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4 thoughts on “Falconry and the Tudors

  1. They did. And I think sometimes we miss the nuance…. it’s amazing how often you see this particular list talked about as if it had the force of law. John Cummins in ‘The Hound and the Hawk’ says that the joke with the musket for the holy water clerk was that the musket hardly eats anything and behaves so neurotically it would drive a layman mad.

  2. Pingback: Falcon | Glossologics

  3. Pingback: Women, Hawks, and English Literature Exams | Jeanne de Montbaston

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