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Historical Perspectives on Falconry

The practice of flying birds of prey at game has been extant for at least 2,500 years, and is still in evidence today, in the retinue of falcons and falconers preceding kings in their grand ceremonial entrances and progresses. Falconry no doubt played an important part in the education and actual sustenance of medieval man, from the serf right up to the sovereign.

The sport of falconry (sometimes referred to as 'hawking,' albeit often erroneously) has taken a pretty terrific tossing around in literature over the past few centuries. The term 'falconry' (introduced by the Normans as faulconnerie) connotes for many people a pleasantly pastoral image of lords and ladies on fine horses spending a summer's morning with noble birds perched on their gloved wrists. Like other forms of hunting, falconry served not only to secure food, but also to satisfy a primeval urge to participate in the chase and taste the thrill of triumph over a cunning and worthy adversary. With the heightened emphasis on personal valor and skill-at-arms, the medieval warrior was naturally attracted to the concept of falconry and to the birds themselves, who apparently followed much the same code. Although the importance of falconry as a sport and diversion for the nobility cannot be denied, it was for a great many people simply a way of putting food on the table. The earliest recorded reference to the use of raptorial birds (i.e., birds of prey) in obtaining food comes from a Japanese work whose title translates to Extract from Writing on Falconry, both Ancient and Modern. It tells of a grand hawking expedition, led by King Wen Wang of Tsu, in Jun Meng, north of lake Tong-ting, China (Hunan Province), circa 680 B.C.

Aelian (c. 220 A.D.) quotes Ctesias the Cnydian, court physician to Shah Artaxerxes Mnemon of Persia, as reporting that eagles, crows, and kites were trained to hunt down hares and foxes in central Asia around 400 B.C. Ctesias was quite fascinated by this procedure and considered it quite a novelty, from which fact we may deduce that falconry was at that time unknown, or virtually so, in Persia and India. This conclusion is further strengthened by the lack of allusions to falconry in contemporary Sanskrit literature or Indian and Persian sculpture.

The Japanese apparently knew of falconry, as previously noted, and a reference exists to falcons being sent as gifts from Japan to Korea in 247 A.D.

There are no references to falconry in classical literature, however; the Greeks and Romans were apparently ignorant of the technique, as were the peoples with whom they traded and whom they colonized.

The existence of falconry in Europe cannot be reliably traced to before the 4th century A.D., under the Emperor Constantine. The earliest known chronicler of the sport, Firmicus, offers no information about its origins; most likely the spread of falconry into Europe was due to trade relations with Western Asia and with the Huns, either of whom could have introduced the sport.

An interesting aside is that when the Spanish Conquistadors conquered Mexico, the sport of falconry was firmly established among the ruling dynasty there, in much the same form as was practiced in the Old World. The origins of falconry in Mexico remain unclear.

By the 5th century, A.D., France and several other European countries had enthusiastically embraced falconry. The Burgundian penal code of the period proclaims the penalty for theft of a hunting hawk as a fine of six sous or the removal of six ounces of flesh, by said hawk, from the thief's buttocks, a sight which no doubt would have delighted Shylock. In Lombardy, Swords and Sparrow hawks were both made illegal as tender in payment of ransom or bond.

The popularity of falconry seems to have risen sharply at the time of the Crusades, as a result of the high degree of skill that had been achieved by Arab falconers. The new impetus given to falconry by the Arabs and their writings caused a jealous and sometimes violent rivalry to foment between falconers and conventional hunters, whose sport was being replaced by falconry as the preferred sport of the nobles. These squabbles lasted until the time of Louis XIV, at which time hunting finally regained its accustomed preeminence.

Interaction between falconry and the church has been considerable. The clergy have been repeatedly forbidden to own falcons. St. Boniface was particularly adamant about this stricture , and abstinence from the sport was a part of the code of the Knights Templars. Pope Innocent III decreed, in the Ecumenical Council of 1215, "We forbid hunting to the whole Clergy wherefor let them not presume to keep hawks." These stern regulations did not deter some of the clergy from practicing the sport, however, and in 1303 the Synod of Auch was obliged to forbid Archdeacons from taking their hounds and hawks with them on visits to their dioceses.

In 1423, the Seigneurs of Chastelas, canons of the Church of Auxerre, were granted the right to attend services armed with their swords, clad in a surplice and amice, wearing a plumed hat, and holding on their fist their hawk. The treasurers of both the Church of Auxerre and that of Nevers were also granted the right to attend divine services, on feast days, with their hawks. The Seigneur of Sassay and the Cure of Ezy were allowed by the church of Our Lady of Evreux to fly their goshawk and tiercel (male Peregrine Falcon) over the entire diocese of Evreux, while being attended by six spaniels and two hounds. They were additionally allowed to wear boots and spurs and to have "drum beating instead of the organ." Some of the less privileged monks of this period are reported to have filed a complaint with the proper authorities regarding the deplorable practice of hunting hawks pursuing and killing prey within the actual walls of their monastery. This complaint resulted in a loosely worded stricture against hunting near monasteries, which was promptly ignored by an overwhelming majority of the local falconers, probably including the local clergy.

Not only was falconry embraced by the clergy, they sometimes used the authority of the Church to protect their interests. An unwary thief who stole a hawk from the cloisters of Bermondsey had the poor fortune to select the Bishop's own bird. For this he was promptly and righteously excommunicated.

Falconry as a sport has ever been the purview of nobility. Many English books, such as the Boke of St. Albans in 1486, have set down the species of hawks and falcons to which to various social ranks were entitled. Restrictions such as these were probably enforced only sporadically, as the following list will suggest: the eagle, vulture, and kite were reserved for emperors; Kings received gyrfalcons; Princes, the falcon gentle; Dukes the falcon of the loch; Earls the peregrine; Barons the buzzard; Knights the saker; Squires the lanner; Ladies the merlin; Young men the hobby; Priests the sparrow hawk; Yeomen the goshawk; and servants the kestrel. It is perhaps indicative of the leniency and general confusion of these rules that the Prince, Duke, and Earl are all allotted the same bird, the peregrine falcon, under different names. As to the list itself, the Emperor seems to come off rather badly, considering the preeminence of his position. Eagles are difficult to train and require large game. Kites are not ideal for falconry due to their rather skittish hunting habits and partiality to carrion. Vultures are for all practical purposes entirely carrion eaters and are therefore virtually useless in falconry. The King receives the best overall species for falconry, in my opinion, and so can be quite happy at his lot. Buzzards, allocated to the Baron, are simply what Europeans call the buteonine hawks; that is, soaring hawks, like the common Red-tailed hawk of the Southern U.S. These birds are generally not very useful in "working" falconry, as they tend to hunt from great altitudes and favor for the most part small rodents for their prey. It is more likely that the term is busard, or French for harrier, falcon-like birds which are more suited overall to falconry. Priests, who are by this time publicly acknowledged to be avid falconers, are given the sparrow hawk, a difficult hawk to train, although a reliable one once their education has been accomplished. I should think that properly training sparrow hawks would leave little time for professional duties as rigorous as those of the medieval clergy.

Falconry has been called the sport of Kings; the number of monarchs who have felt a special passion for it seems to bear this out. Canute was a falconer, but did not allow falconry on Sunday. Edward the Confessor made an exception to his antipathy toward secular goings-on and took up falconry. Alfred (the Great) is believed to have written a treatise on falconry. Harold appears in the Bayeaux tapestry with a hawk on his wrist. William the Conqueror brought with him a number of Flemish falconers, who quickly became the leading proponents of falconry in the newly conquered lands. These falconers, incidentally, may have introduced the concept of rank signification by falcon species. They were themselves greatly enamored of the practice and allocated different species to falconers, depending on their level of achievement within the falconry community. Henry II was a passionate falconer and preferred peregrine eyesses (falcons taken from the nest) from Wales over all other hawks. Partially at his inception Welsh falconers were forbidden more than three draughts of ale from their horns, to prevent dereliction of duty to their birds.

Over on the continent, Charlemagne considered the training of hounds and hawks to be skills of great importance, to be included in the education of all gentlemen. King Cardoman seems to have been the first to appoint an actual Royal Falconer, who was subservient only to the Seneschal, Butler, and Constable in the King's household.

In 1363, Edward III proclaimed it a capital offense, equivalent to horse theft, to steal a hawk. When Edward and the Black Prince invaded France, they took with them thirty falconers. The popularity of falconry was such in Edward IV's time that he found it necessary to prohibit hawking in the royal preserve around Westminster. Even stealing hawks' eggs from the nest was a crime under Henry VII, punishable by imprisonment for a year and a day.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic and certainly the most vocal of all sovereign falconers was Henry VIII. He had elaborate and very expensive mews, or hawk quarters, built where the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square now stands. Falconry was by this tine almost entirely for sport, and having the time and wherewithal to engage in falconry was considered by many to be the pinnacle of Earthly Happiness. Nobility rarely travelled without their hawks on their fists; as a consequence the hawk came to represent noble birth. Anne Boleyn's crest was a falcon.

The Stewarts in Scotland were not to be outdone in falconry. Alexander III appointed a Royal Falconer. Edward I, while in the North, granted "all the falcons gentilz" in the royal demesnes to Sir Walter de Money. Robert the Bruce maintained mews at Castle Hill, Dunbarton. James I had white-tailed sea eagles (close relatives of the American bald eagle) trained to capture teal. Highland chieftains distinguished themselves by wearing a plume composed of sea eagle feathers. James IV ran organized lines of falconers, on horseback, in elaborately staged hunts. Mary Queen of Scots was an extreme enthusiast; it was said that she, "would rather look at a bird on the wing than one on the board," a sentiment shared by a large number of sporting ladies during this period. Her favorite hunting partner was the austere John Knox, whose presence on a hawking expedition I, for one, would dearly love to have witnessed. Mary's son James was a falconer of high repute throughout Europe, regulating the sport by suppressing "disorderly hawking" and prohibiting the killing of game by guns and bows, excepting only pigeons, which were used as food for hawks in the mews. James is reported to have spent a thousand pounds on a cast (pair) of gyrfalcons from Scotland. Such expenditures helped to foster the image of falconry as exclusively a rich man's sport, in spite of the existence of many references to the common man flying his goshawks, illegally, in royal preserves.

Even Cromwell seems to have been fond of falconry as a sport and recreation. The Puritans looked upon falconry as a 'gentle exercise.' The English civil war brought about the beginning of the end for falconry, however, by depleting the coffers of those who supported the falconers and mews. The Restoration witnessed a moderate revival of the sport, but it soon slipped into disfavor with the advent of the matchlock gun. The construction of hedges and stone dikes, with the Enclosure Acts of George III, further impeded falconry, as these edifices served to break up the vast stretches of open land and provide plentiful cover for pursued quarry. Scotland, with its extensive moors, held on to falconry for a little while longer, but the last Under-Falconer of Scotland retired in 1840 and the post has since remained vacant.


Cade, T.J. The Falcons of the World. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Fleming, Arnold. Falconry and Falcons. Wakefield, Yorkshire, England: EP Publishing Limited, 1974.

Glasier, Phillip. Falconry and Hawking. Newton Center, Massachusetts: Charles T. Branford Co., 1978.

Harting, James E. Hints on the Management of Hawks and Practical Falconry. Maidenhead, England: Thames Valley Press, 1898.

Schlegel, H., and J.A.V. DeWulverhorst. The World of Falconry. New York: The Vendome Press, 1979.

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