Hunting, Hawking and the Early Tudor Gentleman: James Williams Considers Hunting as the Ideal Pastime for the Nobility in the Sixteenth Century
Williams, James, History Today
'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 skilfully, 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 knighthood, 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 I love and shall until I die Grudge to lust, but none deny So God be pleased, thus live will I For my pastance, Hunt, sing and dance, My heart is set, All goodly sport For my comfort: Who shall me let?
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 and hawke And in fowle weder at my booke to sitt. In frost and snowe then with my bow to stalke; No man doeth marke where so I ride or goo; In lusty lees at libertie I walke, And of these newes I fele nor wele nor woo.
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. …