Hunting. A Medieval Passion.
Hunting in Anglo-Saxon England was a pastime for the rich. Spears, nets, horses, men and dogs were often needed. Of the bigger hunted game, wild boar were extremely dangerous, most of all when cornered and brought to bay, but they were seen as worthy adversaries. The god Woden was a god of hunting and the god Frey rode a boar called Gullinbursti.
As a sport, hunting was mostly for the well off. However the forests were largely free for landowners and their people to gather wood, honey and fruit and to pasture animals. Rights to woodland, heath, moorland and wetlands were shared by all by ancient custom.
1066 and the conquest of England by the Normans saw a massive change in the law. King William appropriated huge tracts of land as hunting preserve—the New Forest being the most famous. In such areas the law was forest law, a new import into England, and bitterly resented, being regarded as oppressive. All game was protected and reserved for the king and his nobles. There were deer parks, enclosed stretches encircled by stakes and earthen banks, costly both to set up and to maintain. Breeding and training dogs for the chase were also expensive. Edward III spent about £80 a year (around £49,000 in modern money) keeping a pack of hounds of various types. Costumes for the hunt were often specially made and favourite hounds might have silver collars.
Hunting was frequently portrayed in art and in literature. The month of December was often shown in illuminations, symbolized by a deer or boar hunt. In the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” there are several hunting scenes, each vividly described.
With all this tasty food and opulent display, the nobles were keen to gain royal grants so they could also hunt on their lands. Although both lords and ladies hunted, tracking and killing large prey was seen as a form of single combat, man against beast, and a means to train young warriors for war. Because of this martial association priests were not supposed to hunt or hawk, although these strictures were often ignored.
Those less than noble despised the changes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained that the Norman King William I “set aside a vast deer preserve and imposed laws concerning it….Whoever slew a hart or hind should be made blind.” On his death in 1087, the Chronicle broke into verse:
“For he loved the stags as dearly
As though he had been their father.”
The death of his son and successor, William Rufus, within the New Forest, was seen by later chroniclers as divine punishment for driving so many off the land to accommodate the beasts of the chase.
In these circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that many folk turned to poaching in the woodland to eke out their diet and to defy the authorities. The fact these poachers were successful is shown in the statue of 1390, which stated that any artificers, labourers or peasants with lands worth less than £10 a year (around £7000 in modern money) could not hunt deer, rabbit or hares. Still poaching went on—Robin Hood hunts in the greenwood as a gesture of defiance and to supply himself and his men with venison from captured deer. Perhaps it tasted particularly sweet?
Hunting could also be a cover for assassination – as is suspected in the death of William Rufus by way of a hunting “accident”. I used the same threat in my novel “The Snow Bride”, where the hero Magnus has to go hunting with his enemy, Denzil.
Out in the forest, Magnus glanced so often at the sun’s position that Gregory Denzil chaffed him. “Eager for the night, Magnus? That luscious redhead is a trophy, before God, and we all envy you!”
His men added more, which embarrassed even Mark and set Magnus’s guts grinding in slow fury. Keeping his countenance was easy. His scars meant most men had trouble guessing his mood. Except for Elfrida, of course, but she was unique.
“I remember you
with that blonde from
“Elfrida is not for sale,” Magnus repeated. He hated to sully her name by speaking it in such company, but Denzil and his men had to learn. He gripped his spear, a flash of memory returning him to Outremer as he saw in his mind’s eye a Templar screaming in agony as a spear passed through him. “Where is this rich game?” he demanded, snatching at any diversion and wishing only for the night. Elfrida in his arms again and him seducing her, kissing her in her most secret place...
He heard a faint click and creak behind him and knew at once it was a bow and arrow being readied and aimed. There was no game in the wastes and thickets of hazel ahead, so he must be the target.
Before he completed his conscious thought, he had reacted, dragging his left foot out of its stirrup and head-butting down into the snow, not considering the speed of his cantering horse or where he might land. Snow-crusted brambles snagged and broke his fall, and as he urged his flailing limbs to roll away, he felt the vane of the arrow score the top of his shoulder, where the middle of his back would have been.
“Maaagnusss! Areee yeee weeeeelllll?”
Gregory Denzil’s question crawled from his mouth as the world about Magnus slowed into thick honey. As his jaw crunched against a branch and threatened to loosen more teeth, he felt a trickle of blood run into his eye.
He compelled his sluggish body to sit up, a devil caught in a thicket. He knew he would make that picture, and he grinned, raising an arm to his men and yelling, “Hola! What a ride!”
Denzil and his mob nudged their horses closer. Mark had already leapt from his own with his hunting spear aimed at Denzil's throat. Magnus stood up, cursing with all the oaths of Outremer he could remember, and looked around him. His own men were honestly puzzled, while Denzil's wore expressions of studied innocence.
“Not a good time for archery practice,” he said. All good fun, all men together.
Denzil smiled thinly. “A fool, too eager for sport.”
“Indeed.” As an assassination attempt, Magnus rated it as poor to moderate, but Gregory Denzil had always been lazy. And in the clustered mass of hunters, he saw no skinny stranger with distinctive rings.
“Time to go on?” he asked, knowing if he suggested it, Denzil would say the opposite, which he did.
“We go back.”