Wednesday, 26 March 2014

King James I - Dogs, Hunting and the Nation's Discontent

Much has been written about the English Civil War and ordinary people rising up against the monarchy. King Charles I believed in his divine right to rule and his unilateral power to set religious practices for his kingdom. But it is Charles’ father, King James I who is the subject of today’s blog post. The reason? James’ attitude to dogs and hunting shows how out of touch the monarch was with his subjects and how the seeds of rebellion were sown.
Medieval hunts were confined to royal estates or private land
Prior to James I hunting was a well regulated pastime. The hunt took place in a royal park or on land owned by a nobleman. The huntsmen stood on wooden platforms or ‘pavilions’ and beaters forced animals forced through a narrow channel for hunters to shoot. Whatever the ethics of this activity the effect on local farming was minimal and the nobleman who arranged the hunt bore the expense.
However, with James I’s accession to the throne all this changed.
King James I- physically unprepossessing he liked
the presence that being in the saddle gave him.
James asserted, as William the Conqueror had, “a royal prerogative” to hunt. To this end it was expected all the subjects of his realm, from noblemen to peasants, would facilitate this sport. In practice this meant he was free to roam across any land he wished – and do tremendous damage in the process.
James wanted to hunt in the French style – which involved mounted huntsmen tearing across the countryside on horses. To this end he imported French hounds and fifty red deer from a forest in Fontainebleau. James’ detractors went so far as to say he spent his life in the saddle and in common with many country squires, hunting was all he seemed to care about.
“Does all go well with you? In all your letters I find not one word of horse, hawk or hound?”
Letter to James I
The royal hunt was allowed to ride over any land it desired.
In keeping with the French way of hunting with James placing restrictions on land owners and farmers. If the hunt was to pass their way he forbade the ploughing of land (furrows being a hazard to galloping horses) and ordered pigs to be confined (so their rooting didn’t create dangerous holes) Worse still, locals were commanded to take down any fences, walls or hedges that might obstruct His Majesty’s ride.
During the hunt itself mounted huntsmen and packs of hounds caused considerable damage – often trampling crops, damaging fences, destroying gardens and scattering flocks or herds of animals. But the disruption didn’t end there. Local common folk were ordered to provide workers to assist the hunt, taking them away from their work – if it was harvest time.
No thought was given to the damage to crops, livestock or land
In addition, a farmer was expected to provide food and fodder for all the royal party – which could easily amount to a hundred or so people. Attempts to appeal to the king to recoup their expenses fell on deaf ears. Indeed, during one hunt, a local hit on an ingenious way of getting the king’s attention – by kidnapping his favorite dog, Jowler.
Jowler went missing and reappeared later with a message tied to his collar which read:
“Good Mr Jowler, we pray you speak to the King, for he hears you every day, and he does not hear us. Ask that His Majesty be pleased to go back to London, or else this countryside will be undone. All our provisions are used up already and we are not able to entertain him any longer.”
Instead of taking note, James laughed the matter off and carried on hunting.
Farmers were expected to give the royal hunt free access to fields -
and might have his own dogs confiscated by way of thanks.
To add insult, the manner in which James acquired his hounds also caused distress. In 1616 he commissioned Henry Mynours, Master of the Otterhounds, to:
“Take for us and in our name [The King] in all places within this realm of England…such and so many hounds, beagles, spaniels and mongrels, as well as dogs and bitches fit for hunting the otter as the said Henry Mynours shall think fit.”
For an animal loving nation this was a step too far – especially as James seized some pet dogs to take part in another ‘sport’ he supported – bull and bear-baiting. To ensure there was no argument James appointed Edward Alleyn as “Chief master, ruler and overseer of all and singular games, of bears and bulls and mastiff dogs and mastiff bitches”. This gave Alleyn unlimited authority to seize whatever dogs he saw fit in order to send them into the ring.
Charles I - son of James I - following in his father's footsteps
People began to rebel. The officials whose job it was to enforce the dog levies, were increasingly opposed, some were even attacked and beaten. The local magistrates who were supposed to sentence the offenders, refused to put them on trial – the common man had had enough.
Another faction started to voice their discontent – that of the Puritans. They believed hunting was a sin. They referred James to the Old Testament and how God condemned King Nimrod – described as a mighty hunter. The Puritans argued that animals were provided by God for sustenance and to improve the world, and not to be treated cruelly and abused. As a concession to public pressure, James prohibited animal baiting on Sundays – but nothing else changed.

This brings us to Charles I and the English Civil War. When James I died and his son, Charles, acceded to the throne, just as his father before him Charles was inflexible when it came to matters of popular opinion. He believed in his divine right to rule as he saw fit and upheld unpopular policies such as dog confiscation that went to fuel the nation’s negative feelings and resentment toward the monarchy…

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