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.