Our friends from Hawkwise are back this weekend with their majestic birds of prey, so what better time to talk about the history of falconry? Joe, one of our Visitor Services team members, shares some interesting facts about falconry …
Falconry is one of the oldest hobbies known to exist. The practice is believed to have its origins either in Mesopotamia, in the middle east, or in western Mongolia, in Asia about two thousand years before Rome became an empire!
Though thought to have its origins as a practical form of hunting to provide food, falconry later developed into a noble pursuit. An ancient relief depicts a mother and child with a hawk, possibly falconers, and the hawk is believed to add to the air of nobility for both mother and child.
Falconry spread across the world with depictions in art and writing from India, China, Japan, the Roman empire, the Middle East and so on. Birds of prey became important symbols in many cultures: the owl was the sacred animal of Athena in ancient Greece and the aquila (eagle) was the symbol of the Roman Imperial army.
It is generally accepted that falconry arrived in Britain around the 9th Century AD.
By the time of the Normans, falconry was already very popular in England. In fact, the Bayeux Tapestry itself depicts Harold Godwinson with a falcon.
Later in the 13th century, Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire became a source of knowledge on the sport for western Europe. Frederick wrote a thirteen-volume epic on falconry! This book was the basis of Europe’s understanding of falconry throughout the middle ages.
Though the Middle Ages generally saw a movement towards falconry being the pursuit of the nobility and the wealthy, it remained very popular especially in its native land in the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, particularly its sultans, loved falconry and would often bring their birds on campaign with them, hunting and hawking for leisure between battles.
The Book of St Albans was originally published in 1486, only a year after King Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth. It details the pursuits of gentlemen of the aristocracy and goes into great detail about hunting, fishing, heraldry and, of course, falconry.
The book is believed to have been written during the reign of Richard’s brother, Edward IV, and includes details on feeding, illnesses, basic care and an introduction to terminology. Richard himself was likely a keen falconer, much like the other members of the Royal Family at the time.
Curiously, the book also includes a section that describes which birds of prey are appropriate for which class in society:
• An emperor should use an Eagle, being the most regal of all birds of prey.
• A king would use a Gyr Falcon, the largest of all falcons
• A prince should have a ‘gentle falcon’
• A baron should use a Bustard (Bustards are actually a game bird hunted by falconers, so this is probably a mistranslation)
• Knights get a Saker Falcon
• A lady would be expected to use a Merlin, a small type of falcon
• Young men would use a Hobby, mostly because it was considered quite a cheap animal and so an ideal beginner’s raptor
• Men of the church would be expected to use a Sparrowhawk, considered a mundane animal appropriate for the clergy who were expected to shun extravagance
That isn’t the complete list, but it gives a good idea of the order of birds with the largest, rarest or most difficult to rear being granted to the wealthiest in society with people of poorer origins having the opposite.