Hawking: The Sport of Kings
The king’s sport of falconry is now a licensed sport available to all. A history of hawking and flying birds of prey.
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Hawking is the oldest sport in the world, and in medieval times the hawk you flew was a mark of degree, a sign of your station in life, and said as much about you as the type of car you choose to drive today.
The “Boke Of St Albans”, a treatise on Hunting, Hawking and Armour published by the Abbess in the fifteenth century, laid out very specific guidelines for the species of hawk to which you were entitled. Only a king could own a gyrfalcon, the merlin was reserved for ladies, and of course a kestrel for a knave.
Falconry is said to originate in the East around 2000 BC and arrived in this country in Saxon times, where it became the sport of royalty when taken up by King Ethelbert II, although at that time anyone could fly a hawk over the largely common land. This all changed with the arrival of the Normans.
Land came under the ownership of the gentry; the right to hunt became the privilege of the Landowners, and hunting was part of the education of the sons of the gentry, along with the other noble arts of archery and swordsmanship. In medieval England much of the country was covered with Royal Forest, further curtailing hunting by the common man.
Richard Coeur de Lion, a master falconer himself, was fascinated by the falconry techniques of the Saracens he saw in the holy land and is thought to have brought the falcon’s hood back to this country. Hunting birds became very valuable in the middle ages, were often depicted in art and carvings, and the King’s hawks were protected, along with his deer, while a falcon was a valuable asset in trade and barter.
The layman refers to the birds as hawks or falcons, mixing his terms at will, but they are in fact two distinct types that fall into the categories of longwing and shortwing. The shortwings are the Hawks or Accipiters and the man who flies them is an austringer, from the French for goshawk. The heavily-built yellow-eyed hawks with their short rounded wings include buzzard, goshawk, sparrowhawk and the eagle, and are carried on the fist until released at a suitable quarry. The hawks therefore are classed as “birds of the fist”.
The longwings are true falcons, capable of high speed dives with their long narrow wings. More slender than the hawks, the falcons have brown eyes and a notch in the upper mandible and include the peregrine falcon, gyrfalcon, lanner falcon, kestrel and the little merlin. Falcons hunt from a great height and are able to see for long distances, often taking prey out of sight of the falconer. They hunt grouse and partridge on open moorland where they are released, and circle overhead waiting for their prey which they take on the wing.
To further complicate the matter for the layman only the female longwing is referred to as a falcon, the male being known by the old French word tiercel, showing that he is one third smaller than his mate. The longwings are hawks of the lure, that is they stoop to the lure when hunting and are trained to take a lure in mid air. The lure, attached to the end of a long line, resembles the natural prey of the bird, so that hawks, who take their prey on the ground, are trained by towing a bundle of fur while the stooping falcon is trained by swinging a lure of feathers in the air.
Falconry was a favourite hunting pastime of all English kings from Saxon times right up to the early nineteenth century, with the exception of James I who preferred to fish with cormorants, going so far as to set up cormorant houses on the river at Westminster at a place called the Vine Garden, and to create the office of Master Of The Cormorants.
Edward III, when he invaded France, included thirty mounted falconers in his retinue, enabling him to continue his hunting during the war. He later made it a felony, punishable by a year and a day’s imprisonment, to steal a hawk or the eggs. Richard II built his Royal Mews at Charing Cross in the fourteenth century, where they housed the Royal hawks, until they were converted to stables by Henry VIII. A popular sport at these times was heron hawking where the falconers would use a cast, or pair, of falcons working together to try to trap the heron’s neck without being gouged by the beak, and bringing it down for the following horsemen to dispatch.
The most recent instance of falcons being used by the military was in the 1870’s during the siege of Paris, when Bismarck used peregrine falcons in an attempt to hunt down the pigeons carrying messages to the government in Tours.
The buildings housing the hawks were called mews, and there are still many fashionable narrow streets of small dwellings over integral garages in our old cities that bear the name. The equipment used on the hawks, much of it of leather, is called furniture and is largely un-changed to this day. The jesses are two leather straps fitted to the bird’s legs so they can’t tighten, and are used to keep the bird on the leather glove which the falconer wears to protect himself from the talons.
In the case of a small falcon the glove needs to be thin enough for the falconer to be sensitive to the bird, but in the case of an eagle the glove extends to the elbow and is thick enough to protect him from bruising from the bird’s powerful grip. The leather hood covers the bird’s eyes to keep it quiet, fitting snugly over the head while leaving the beak free. It is decorated with a plume of feathers, and the medieval Dutch example had colored panels over the eyes to denote the prey – green for rooks, red for game and purple for heron. Brass bells are fitted in pairs to fully-trained hawks so that they can be easily located, and a short leather leash is fitted to the jesses by a swivel to tether the bird.
Falconry is no longer a sport of kings, it is available to the common man too, but it is a very difficult and demanding sport, and one which is rigidly controlled. A hawk needs to be flown every day and trained carefully by its handler, while the weight has to be carefully monitored so that the bird is kept at its flying weight; enough weight to give it stamina and energy, but not too much so that it is lethargic and unwilling to fly.
Once the bird is trained and will step happily onto the fist, it should be regularly hunted over open country – hawks are raptors not domestic pets and need to catch their own prey. All birds of prey are protected under British law, and anyone intending to take one from the wild or import one must first obtain a license from the department of the environment, and all legally held birds wear a registration band on their legs.
These safeguards and restrictions are necessary in our modern world where the natural habitats of our birds of prey are being continually eroded, and illegally-obtained birds and eggs can command high prices. The gyrfalcon, the King’s bird of the middle-ages, is highly prized today, being the largest and fastest falcon in the world, but is extremely valuable and rare in this country.
The ancient sport of falconry however is unchanged since the Lionheart watched the Saracens flying their hawks in the Holy Land, while the modern falconers carry on valuable work breeding endangered species of hawk to return to the wild.