Saturday, 24 November 2012

'A greate mastyfe dogge and a foule ouglye beare.'

Early Tudor animal-baiting.

A disapproving early Puritan voice on the subject of bear-baiting:

"Of Bearbaytynge.
What follye is thys, to kepe wyth daunger,
A greate mastyfe dogge and a foule ouglye beare;
And to thys onelye ende, to se them two fyght,
Wyth terrible tearynge, a full ouglye syght.
And yet me thynke those men be mooste foles of all,
Whose store of money is but verye smale. 
And yet euerye Sondaye they will surelye spende
One penye or two, the bearwardes lyuyng to mende.
At Paryse Garden eche Sundaye, a man shall not fayle
To fynde two or three hundredes, for the bearwardes vaile." (Robert Crowley in 1550)

Robert Crowley clearly felt that the whole notion of bear-baiting was distasteful since, aside from the dangerous nature of the entertainment, poor men were wasting their money every Sunday at Paris Garden.

The godly frequently damned the two entertainments in one breath, despising bear-baiting because it took place on the Sabbath and playing because it was popular enough to fill the house every other day of the week. Meanwhile, courtiers displayed as marked a penchant for animal-baiting as they had for theatre  An aristocratic pastime in the Middle Ages, bear-baiting became a commercial activity toward the end of the fifteenth century, when bearwards wearing the liveries of their lordly patrons took their masters' animals on tour to the country houses of the kingdom—rather in the manner of playing companies. In the early modern period the sports of baiting and playing occupied homologous social positions, caught between the paying London crowd and the nobles and monarchs who continued to patronise them—and who intermittently brought them to court for command performance

all classes used to go to the bear-baiting as well as the theatre, to a court ceremony as well as a public execution. 

The first specific reference that has been found to bear-baiting on Bankside is in an order of Henry VIII dated 13th April, 1546, to the Mayor and Sheriffs of London, to proclaim the abolition of the Stews on Bankside and of bear-baiting 'in that row or in any place on that side London bridge.' Notwithstanding this proclamation Thomas Fluddie, Yeoman of His Majesty's Bears, was granted a licence in September, 1546, to 'make pastime' with the king's bears 'at the accustomed place at London, called the Stewes.' 
 Alongside theatre, bear-baiting was a wildly popular Tudor pastime. Huge English Mastiff dogs would be let loose to attack a large bear that had had its teeth filed down and was chained to a stake in the centre of an open arena. Several dogs would be allowed to attack at once, until the bear tired. Bull-baiting with dogs was also common.

Royalty had mixed views on Southwark’s offerings. In 1503 Henry VII closed Southwark’s brothels and in 1519 Henry VIII ordered Cardinal Wolsey to purge London and Southwark of brothels and gaming houses  In 1546, Henry VIII again commanded that the brothels be closed, although this was overturned by his son Edward VI a few years later. Henry also forbade bull- and bear-baiting (although he gave permission for one of his own Yeoman to own a baiting pit). 

Why did people bait animals in early modern England? What exactly made the bear-gardens popular London spectacles, as important a part of the tourist itinerary as the royal palaces, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the lions in the Tower? At least two literary critics have recently attempted to answer these questions. For Stephen Dickey the matches were part of a heterogeneous spectacle, ‘a carnival of cruelty’ in a predominantly festive, comic mode, which offered plentiful opportunities for gambling. Contemporary accounts harp on "the audience's unspeakable pleasure and 'good contentment'"; Dickey comments that ‘again and again the audience was pleased by what it saw, cheered it on, and laughed at it.’By contrast, Erica Fudge, in a study of the construction and deconstruction of the animal as 'other' in early modern culture, picks up on one report of a baiting match—written by the Italian merchant Alessandro Magno in 1562—which expresses reservations about the sport:

They take into the ring—which is fenced around, so that one cannot get out unless the gate is opened—a cheap horse with all his harness and trappings, and a monkey in the saddle. Then they attack the horse with five or six of the youngest dogs. Then they change the dogs for more experienced ones. In this sport it is wonderful to see the horse galloping along, kicking up the ground and champing at the bit, with the monkey holding very tightly to the saddle, and crying out frequently when he is bitten by the dogs. After they have entertained the audience for a while with this sport, which often results in the death of the horse, they lead him out and bring in bears—sometimes one at a time and sometimes altogether. But this sport is not very pleasant to watch.

On the basis of this account, Fudge argues that the fascination of cruelty to animals lay in its repeated blurring of the lines dividing humans from animals. While the monkey moves Magno to laughter, the less obviously anthropoid bears (who are, like the spectators, confined in the arena) serve to remind Magno of his weakness in the face of a violent and wild nature. More generally, some parts of the bear-garden entertainment offer viewers the illusion of their superiority to the beasts on display; other parts collapse ‘the binaries of baiting and being baited; watching and performing; human and animal.' 

The documentary evidence suggests, however, that a large part of the pleasure of blood sports for the early modern viewer had to do with what it revealed about the animals. In first-hand accounts of animal-baitings, animals are regularly anthropomorphised by way of their surprising qualities and characteristics.


Jason Scott-Warren.


  1. Great piece Mary. What a cruel sport, for want of a better word. I loved all the detail about Henry VIII getting Wolsey to close down all the brothels. No wonder poor Wolsey was unpopular :-) I really enjoyed this post Mary. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank, George. Always generous with your comments.

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    1. Hello Annette,

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