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Cow Green Park An area once used for medieval deer hunting ©YDNPA

Cut to the Chase

Thursday 19 November, 2020, by Lily Mulvey

Deer reader,

This blog post is going to buck the trend and focus on something which has relatively little on-the-ground archaeological evidence: hunting. Hunting for pleasure is an undeniably controversial topic, but it is nonetheless a sport which has a long and well-established history.

In the past the most sought-after quarry was deer. In fact, the word “venison” comes from the Latin venari, which means “to hunt”. Deer hunting in the medieval period was known as chasse par force des chiens (chase by strength of hounds). It was a highly symbolic, almost ritualistic pastime and it had a sizeable impact on not only the people of the Yorkshire Dales, but its landscape too.

To find out more about how par force hunting influenced the Dales landscape and the communities within it, keep reading.

þe fairest huntyng þat any man may hunte aftir

Edward of Norwich, The Master of Game

Par force hunting

The precise date for the development of hunting as a sport is unclear, but numerous written sources indicate that organised aristocratic parties were hunting roe (and sometimes red) deer in Anglo-Saxon England.

Texts describe a process of livestock being driven towards hunters waiting in pre-prepared stands within a haga enclosure (usually walled by long, linear banks) with the aim of either netting or shooting them. This approach changed after 1066.

Image shows a view over the one-time hunting landscape and the medieval boundary of the park
The edge of the deer park at Cow Green, enclosed in 1336 ©YDNPA

Norman hunting culture was different to that of the Anglo-Saxons in several key aspects. For a start, bone assemblages show that there was a marked decrease in the hunting of roe deer in favour of their (similarly native) counterparts, red deer. Red deer are much more suited to long-distance running, which made them perfect for the prolonged chases over open countryside that the Normans preferred.

Soon after the Conquest, fallow deer, a non-native species, were introduced to the country. Fallow are similarly hardy, and their herds helped the Normans to retain a more sizeable livestock population.

Image shows a red deer standing at the edge of a body of water
Red deer (above) and fallow deer were the preferred quarry of the Normans, while the Anglo-Saxons preferred roe deer. Image subject to creative commons licence.

The two changes which had the biggest impacts on the English were the implementation of Forest Law and the introduction of deer parks.

Forest Law reserved large swathes of land and livestock for the Norman aristocracy. It meant that certain settlements were forbidden from expanding past a certain point, and made hunting deer and other game illegal for the lower classes. Venison was extremely valuable, and was often gifted to royalty or nobility. It was reserved for the privileged few as a sign of status, not produced for the market. As such, poaching (the act of hunting without permission on private land) became a serious crime.

Deer parks (parcus) were areas enclosed by dykes, ditches or boundaries called pales. Pales often included openings (deer leaps) designed to allow deer in, but not out. Deer parks followed the model of the Anglo-Saxon haga (and did not seem to have differed structurally from them all that much) but were also used by nobles to protect resources other than deer: water, hay or deer browse, timber, minerals, rabbit warrens, horses etc. Sometimes land for parks was seized from local communities, many of whom would be required to help build or maintain the boundaries as part of the obligations they owed the local lord.

Image is an illumination from "Livre de Chasse", a medieval text about deer hunting. It shows two nobles on horseback chasing a deer and accompanied by servants and dogs
Folio 68 of Gaston Phébus’ “Livre de chasse” Image in the public domain

Did you know…?

The word ‘park’ was introduced to the English language by the Normans when they began enclosing land for their deer parks.


Par force hunting was focused on chasing, killing and butchering deer with the maximum physical and emotional investment of those taking part. Perhaps due to the ritualistic nature of the sport, it grew ever more restricted as time went on. Entire books were written prescribing the correct way to hunt. One of the most famous was Livre de Chasse, written between 1387 and 1389 by Gaston Fébus III, Count of Foix. There came to be several distinct phases which were to be strictly adhered to.

The first phase was the unharbouring. This involved specially trained men called lymerers, who would track and identify suitable harts with their dogs (lymers). They would then return to the waiting nobles for the second phase: the gathering. Here, the lymerers would present evidence of the potential quarry to the nobles (who were often enjoying a feast) so that the host could choose the ultimate target. Generally speaking, the larger and stronger the animal, the more desirable it was.

Then came the actual chase. Hunting hounds and their handlers would track and dislodge the hart, followed by the mounted nobles. The chase was designed to continue for as long as possible, until the exhausted quarry finally turned to stand. It would be held at bay by the hounds so that a member of the party could dispatch it. This was a dangerous job – the harts were known to injure both dogs and men with their antlers. For this reason, they would often be shot with arrows before someone approached to kill it with a sword.

The stone remains of a park boundary lie in the grass
The remains of a park pale at Crosby Gill ©YDNPA

You might imagine that the most important part of the hunt was the killing of the deer, but it was actually the final phase: the breaking or Quarry (curee). This was the butchering of the animal, which had to be done in a very specific order. Certain symbolic parts were dished out to the participants before the head and the rest of the meat were taken in an ordered procession back to the house or lodge, where a feast would be held for the host and guests.  

Par force hunting grew in popularity, reaching its peak in around 1600, after which it gradually began to fall out of fashion. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, improved farming methods made it profitable to develop hunting landscapes for agriculture. Modern farming methods have largely erased much of the evidence of one-time parks, but it can be found if you know what to look for.

Image shows boundary dykes at Ravenstonedale Park
Boundary dykes are still visible at Ravenstonedale Park ©YDNPA

Hunting in the Dales

There were a few different types of hunting landscape: chases, forests and parks. Evidence of all these can be found in the Yorkshire Dales. Sometimes the evidence comes from simple things like place names, but other times it takes a little more investigation. For example, sometimes dykes, ditches or pales (or their remains) can still be visible.

Evidence can also be found in documents. Nobles required the permission of the monarch to enclose or impark land, so mention of them can be found in royal grants. There are nearly 300 extant licences to impark dating between 1200 and 1350. Similarly, enclosing or imparking land often caused disputes with local tenants, so the existence of hunting landscapes can also be found in court documents.

Barden Tower/Barden Park
Image shows Barden Tower from the road
Barden Tower ©YDNPA

One way to identify the location of a hunting landscape is by finding hunting lodges. Hunting lodges were often built as retreats or (grand) bases and are much more likely to survive than enclosure mounds or ditches. Where there is a hunting lodge, there must be a park or a chase nearby.

A well-known example of a hunting lodge in the Yorkshire Dales is Barden Tower (Middle Wharfedale). Barden Tower was mentioned in the early fourteenth century as one of six hunting lodges within the Forest of Barden. It is a Grade 1 listed building and a scheduled ancient monument. The house was granted to the Clifford family in 1310. It was rebuilt by Henry Clifford after 1485 and later remodelled by Lady Anne Clifford in 1657. The house was associated with the nearby enclosed landscape of Barden Park.

Langstrothdale Chase

As mentioned above, sometimes evidence for hunting landscapes can be found easily in place names. Langstrothdale Chase was claimed as a royal hunting chase soon after the Conquest. The settlements there were forbidden from expanding under Forest Law. The chase was part of land included in the Forest of Wensleydale, itself a hunting forest used by the lords of Middleham and Richmond.

Cow Green Park
Image shows the remains of a possible park pale at Cow Green Park
Possible park pale at Cow Green Park ©YDNPA

Cow Green Park, Crosby Ravensworth, was enclosed in 1336 by the Threlkeld family of Crosby Lodge (then known as Crosby Gill). The park was extended to cover around 700 acres. During medieval times it was owned successively by the families of Pickering, Wilson and Rawlinson. Unusually for the Dales, there is surviving archaeological evidence for a possible park pale (shown below).

These are just a few of the many old hunting landscapes here in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Many of these landscapes are normally publicly accessible, meaning that people will still be able to experience and enjoy them (albeit in a slightly less strenuous way).


Important note: this blog is intended to provide an interesting read from the comfort of your home – although of course, you may wish to make a note to visit the sites mentioned, once it is safe and you are permitted to do so. Please remember to follow the current Government guidelines when you do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Picture of Lily Mulvey

Lily Mulvey

Lily is the Authority's Historic Environment Apprentice

6 Replies to “Cut to the Chase”

  1. Tom Lord says:

    Hunting is a good example of a frequently overlooked aspect of the archaeological record of the YDNP; the failure to consider the evidence provided by bone assemblages often preserved n cave shafts. Cave shafts in the YDNP contain unique evidence for hunting at different times beginning with tool kits and processed remains of prey in the Mesolithic. The earliest evidence for Red Deer hunting in the Dales comes from a cave shaft where direct AMS radio-carbon dates on red deer bone reveal people hunting these animals around 8000 years ago.
    The cave assemblages deserve to be better known. For the Medieval Period cave shafts preserve both bones of prey animals and bones of the animals used in hunting, especially the dogs. The excellent preservation of bones in caves makes them an ideal subject for Ancient DNA analysis, and there are presently a number of Ancient DNA studies underway on specimens from the Dales. These promise to open up entirely new approaches to the recording and understanding of the the cultural and ecological history of the Dales.

  2. Christine Pearce says:

    2020 marks the 250th Anniversary of the enclosure of the Forest of Knaresborough. Although falling outside the modern boundary of the YDNP the western edge of the Forest meets the National Park boundary on Barden Fell. This hunting area together with other archaeological finds in the area was the subject of a programme of Events celebrating the historic significance of the Forest. This was organised to take place in Spring 2020 by the Washburn Heritage Centre. The events are currently on hold but may re-start in 2021.

    • Lily Mulvey says:

      Hi Christine, thanks for reading. The Forest of Knaresborough is a wonderful place and in a wider sense it’s great that the impacts of medieval hunting on landscapes and communities are recognised. This sounds like a fantastic event! Fingers crossed everything can go ahead next year.

  3. Matt stafford says:

    I did not know that! I have often wondered what some of those features are in the landscape. Thanks for for posting Lily, really interesting!

    • Lily Mulvey says:

      Hi Matt, thanks for reading – I’m glad you found it interesting. Hopefully now you’ll be able to identify these features when you come across them.

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