Ancient & Medieval Falconry: Origins & Functions in Medieval England

Hunting falcon with hood and bell.

Ancient & Medieval Falconry: Origins & Functions in Medieval England

by Shawn E. Carroll



A swift bird, gliding high above the grassy plain, is the focal point of a group of hunters scattered below. The falcon, its identity betrayed by its size, speed, and shape appears as merely a speck cutting across the sky like a shooting star. It suddently tucks its wings and begins to dive, its stream-lined silhouette growing slightly larger, until a flock of mallards on the small lake take notice and begin frantically to disperse. But for one duck, slightly too young and inexperienced, it is too late. The peregrine has already chosen its feathered target, and the duck is killed instantly as the peregrine slams its razor-sharp talons into its flesh. The two birds fall to the ground together as the men emit a muffled cheer and begin trekking toward the landing site to recover the prey and the falcon.

This mystical scene has been repeated for thousands of years, from the sands of Arabia to the mountains of East Asia or the prairies of the American Great Plains. Little has changed fundamentally in the sport — or, as some would argue — the art of falconry since the practice first began around four thousand years ago, somewhere between the Near and Far East. The sport has been subjected to shifting popularity and restrictions, but interest in it continues, and the intense relationship between falconers and their birds remains extremely and mysteriously strong.

Falconry is generally defined as the capturing of quarry using trained birds of prey. Several, more specific terms are used by purists. For example, the term hawking is used when a hawk or an eagle is used for the hunting, or even the broader term austringer is used for one who hunts with hawks, eagles, or even owls. The term falconry, some believe, should be used strictly for hunting with falcons.

The first defensible record of humans using birds of prey for hunting comes from an Assyrian bas-relief dated in the early part of the seventh century, B.C. References to falconry in China come from as early as 680 B.C. in the kingdom of Ch’u, although one Japanese work states that falcons were used as gifts to Chinese princes during the Hsia Dynasty (206-220, B.C.), encouraged by the Emperor Teng’s fondness for hunting in the imperial forests with falcons and dozens of that era’s finest falconers. The first record of falconry in Japan is reported around 720, A.D. In the late sixteenth to seventeenth centuries samurai warriors received a millitary manual that included a section of falconry.

The sport probably existed in Persia and Arabia at a much earlier time than in Japan, although very few written records have been found supporting that belief. An Arabic account holds that the first falconer was a king of Persia, who watched a wild falcon take a passing bird. He was captivated by the grace and beauty of the bird and ordered his men to capture the raptor. According to tradition, the king kept the bird at his side at all times and learned many good lessons from the bird, perhaps most importantly changing from a violent king to a wiser, calmer ruler.

As trade increased between Arabia, Europe, and the Far East, so did the interest in falconry. It is believed to have reached the Mediterranean aby 400 A.D., where an elderly author related his desire as a youth to have “a swift dog and a splendid hawk.” Germanic tribes acquired the sport around the sixth century A.D., and by 875, A.D., it was practiced widely through western Europe and Saxon England.

The period of 500 A.D. to 1600 A.D. saw the peak of interest in falconry. It became a highly regulated, revered and popular sport among nearly all social classes in Europe. In Western Europe and Great Britain, falconry went beyond being a sport of royalty or being practiced as a necessity. Instead, its popularity became what sociologists would term a craze or fad, and became a status symbol in medieval society.

The sport was most popular among the upper class citizens in Europe, especially among the clergy, who were noted for their fondness for falconry. Pope Leo X was an avid falconer, who went on frequent hunting excursions with his birds. In some religious orders, falcons were even taken into religious services, so much so that nuns, many of whom during this time were rarely seen without their falcons on their wrists, were reprimanded for bringing their birds into the chapel by bishops, who complained the practice interfered with the services.

The man considered by many to be the greatest falconry enthusiast of all time was Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, king of Sicily and Jerusalem. His book,De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry), took over thirty years to complete and, as one of the first scientific works on the anatomy of birds, has placed him as one of the founders of ornithology. Frederick’s obsession with falconry often disrupted his ability to maintain effective leadership. He once lost an important military campaign because he decided to go hawking instead of continuing the siege of a fortress. His crusade in 1228, in which he brought back many experienced falconers from Arabia and Syria, added greatly to his knowledge and experience in falconry.

Falcons were so highly valued that they were worth more than their weight in gold when used as coinage in ransom negitiations. During one particularly bloody crusade in the late fourteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid captured the son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and turned down Philip’s offer of 200,000 gold ducats for ransom. Instead, Beyazid wanted and was given something even more precious: twelve white gyrfalcons.

The birds were also used as offerings of peace. In 1276, the king of Norway sent eight gray and three white gyrfalcons to Edward I as a sign of peace. Three hundred years later, in 1552, Czar Ivan IV and Queen Mary I exchanged a gyrfalcon and a pair of lions after Russia and England established diplomatic relations.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the English often took their falcons with them when they crossed the Channel. According to one historian, Edward III had thirty falconers with him when he invaded France. So important were falcons in England that the first laws aimed at protecting birds of prey were created there. The punishments for harming falcons were often very strict. To destroy a falcon’s eggs meant one year’s imprisonment; to poach a falcon from the wild was reason enough for the criminal’s eyes to be poked out.

In all societies where falconry was popular, harming them, their aeries, eggs, newly hatched young or eyasses,, was viewed as a greater or lesser crime, with corresponding penalties, so much so that some allege the beginning of wildlife conservation in the Western world may have been created during this period. Punishements for stealing trained raptors were also severe. A bishop of Ely excommunicated the thieves who stole his falcons that he left in the cloister of the church in the fourteenth century.

The first documented English falconer was the Saxon king of Kent, Ethelbert II, in the eighth century, followed by Alfred the Great and Athelstan in the ninth century. Up to that point, the species used for falconry were basically limited to the more common native species, but after the Norman Conquest in 1066, new raptor species, such as the gyrfalcon and new subspecies of the peregrine were introduced in England, and for the next six centuries falconry steadily increased in popularity.

Soon nearly everyone from the baker to the king became falconers. The average citizen usually kept more common birds less suited for falconry, such as sparrowhawks and goshawks. The “long-winged hawks,” or more specifically, falcons such as gyrfalcons, and peregrines were reserved for the nobility because they were better suited for falconry and, to medieval Englishmen, appeared more noble than other species.

So important was falconry to English society that one could rarely walk down the streets of medieval England without seeing someone with his or her falcon perched on hand on wrist. A fourteenth-century lady was advised by her husband to take her bird everywhere with her, including church, so that it would become accustomed to people.

Falconry remained popular among royalty until the reign of George III. The Stuarts were particularly fond of the sport, and Henry VIII was perhaps the most important falcon advocate since Federick II. By ancient tradition, the king of England is presented with a falcon at the time of his coronation by the Duke of Athol and Lord Derby, and the office of royal falconer, called Master of the Mews, still exists today.

The majority of birds used for falconry were trapped in elaborate bow nets set along raptor migration routes in Holland. The art of falconry was passed from generation to generation in a number of Dutch families, and slowly the economy of a small village, Valkenswaard, grew to become solely reliant upon trapping birds, making falconry accessories, and on manning and training of birds.

Each fall, falconers from the courts of every feudal lord and king in Europe would travel to Valkenswaard for a spirited medieval auction, bidding against each other for the best specimens caught that year. The village had a monopoly on the falconry market up until the last of the famous Mollen family of falconers died in 1937, virtually bringing the falconry business in Europe to a halt. Curiously, the birds could have been trapped just as easily in the English moors, but no one believed it possible or attempted it.

Strictly speaking, however, the smaller falcons, such as kestrels and sparrowhawks, had little use in procuring food for its owner, since their normal prey consist of insects, small songbirds, and occasionally a mouse or vole. Since the larger birds traditionally caught larger prey in the wild, they were used to capture larger animals for the falconers. Tiercels were used to capture snipe and partridge; gyrfalcons for rook and heron, which when more common centuries ago were considered delicacies. Goshawks were trained to capture hare, rabbit, pheasants, and other large game birds.

The original purpose of falconry, using birds to capture quarry, was slowly replaced among the nobility by another purpose or function. Falconry provided an opportunity for kings and lords to host other nobles for grand hunting parties, each of which instantly became a topic for invidious comparison. The kings of England and France, the Russian czars, and the Holy Roman Emperors all maintained extravagant falconry establishments, often utilizing the skills of hundreds of the country’s finest falconers. For the nobility, falconry practiced on a magnificent scale became an essential element in establishing and maintaining personal and national prestige.

As time went on, commoners and lords alike took their birds to the field simply because it had become a matter of what sociologists today term “conspicuous consumption.” One of the few basic instincts, if any, that man has left is the motivating desire to strive toward attaining a higher status in society. In modern society, many accomplish this by acquisition of name-brand clothing, lavish jewelry, expensisve automobiles, large and elegant homes, or similarly scarce commodities. In medieval England, falconry served the purpose of “conspicuous consumption” quite well.

When the English no longer truly needed falcons to provide food for them, this considerably expensive sport provided a means through which they could validate their current social status, be noticed by those higher up on the social ladder, in the hope of being recognized and accepted as equals, or at least as higher than they were in reality.

Then as now, however, most falconry enthusiasts found their options limited by either cost, custom, or regulation to certain species of birds of prey. In spite of this, the sport still enjoyed the status of one of the most popular pastimes in all of England. Nearly everyone who could afford one had a falcon of some type. In class-conscious British society, one’s position in the system of social stratification determined the particular specie and even the gender of the falcon one could own. As a result, the individual birds seemed to take on the nobility of their owner. A list of the respective birds and who could possess them in medieval England, as recorded in The Boke of St. Albans, written by Dame Juliana Barnes, prioress of Sopwell nunnery in 1486, attests to the rigidity of the rules of ownership.

According to the prioress, keeping a falcon above one’s station was considered a felony and duly regarded as an act of rebellion against an inflexible social order. This illegality may have been effective as a deterrent in part because it was made more difficult and expensive for birds to be obtained by those other than persons decreed as appropriate owners. The Boke of St. Albans relates that the typical punishment of cutting off the hands of people who kept birds above their social rank also served as an excellent deterrent to the crime.

Falconry was expensive. In addition to the initial high price of the bird, maintaining a healthy falcon was costly. The birds required intricate housing, which consisted of cages known as mews, in addition to all the accessories such as hoods, jesses, bells, and lures with which the birds were trained. Since the birds were only permitted to eat a few choice parts of the prey they captured while in the field with their masters, falconers were required to feed the birds a balanced diet on a daily basis. Strips of beef were not enough. Whole animals would have to be fed to the birds in order for them to get the required nutrients.

The typical dinner of a captive falcon consisted of young chickens or mice, with the size and number dependent upon the type of falcon and activity level of the bird. A large, active falcon, such as a gyrfalcon, would require during the hunting season up to several times more food than would a small kestrel, even during the inclement weather of winter and early spring. Clearly, the larger the bird, the more likely the owner was to be of higher social rank, meaning that these are people who were able to afford all the accessories and foods required to maintain the birds. Those lower in social station would have respectively smaller birds, reflecting the less amount of money the birds would require.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, falconry began to decline in popularity due to the discovery of the shotgun. Additional reasons for the decline have been attributed to the new agriculltural practices in which forests were cleared for farmland, and the general disintegration of the feudal system in Europe. Unfortunately, the unprecedented reverence for birds of prey was replaced by the slaughter of the birds and destruction of their nests as they began to be viewed as vermin, especially in the first half of our own century, competing for food with gun-toting hunters.

Falconry was a pastime well-suited to medieval England. A hobby considered both a sport and an art, yet serving the practical purpose of procuring food, rightfully assumed a high poisition in the lives of people throughout the world. Tracing its roots through Europe and Asia, falconry flourished in cultures rich in tradition, and in many places continues today to be as socially important as it was a thousand years ago.

Belled and jessed peregrine on perch.

“Man has emerged from the shadows of antiquity with a peregrine on his wrist,” wrote the famous bird artist and naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson. The ancient art and sport of falconry has flourished for the milennia around the globe, and in some regions is as important a sport today as it was three thousand years ago. In few areas, however, was falconry as important a part of everyday life as it was in medieval England. Here falconry was a pastime which did not quickly become popular, then, fad-like, suddenly disappear. Instead, it reigned as the most popular sport for more than four centuries.

Although falconry is a sport using trained raptors to capture and kill wild game, unlike most sports in which animals are used to hunt, the birds used to hunt are wild rather than domesticated, in the same way some greyhounds are still used to hunt wild rabbit like hunting dogs. Perhaps better analogies — and more realistic in an important way — are the ancient use of trained cheetahs for hunting in Asia, or the use of cormorants to fish in the Far East; both practices, like falconry, harness the hunting abilities of wild-captured predators to benefit their human captor/trainers. Because breeding raptors in captivity is a complex and expensive process that had not been successful until recently, when modern ornithology enabled breeding raptors to become simpler and less expensive than it had heretofore been.

The use of falconry, however, was not a primary means of obtaining food for medieval citizens. Not even among the nobility did falcons, hawks, eagles, or osprey provide other than a small percent of meat for the larder. Instead, nets, snares, and other traps were not only more efficient, but also less expensive and time-consuming.

Maintaining a bird’s health was a hugely expensive proposition. Thus, falconry, hawking, and the like were usually reserved for the nobles who had suffiecient time and money, plus personnel available to pursue this ancient sport. Those lower on the social ladder could participate, but used smaller birds that were more numerous, less expensive, less productive of table-fare, and as effective as a means of conspicuous status-striving as could be afforded by their less affluent owners.

Falconry became so pervasive in European society that elements of the sport were found nearly everywhere. In The Lisle Letters, collected, annotated, and published in a six-volume set by Muriel St. Claire Bryne, correspondence into and out of the household of Lord and Lady Lisle reveals how thoroughly falconry permeated various realities of life in medieval and Renaissance households of the gentry. Not only was it both sport and an important hunting enterprise, it was also an importantt symbol of respect and friendship between nobles. It marked the beginning of new relationships, solidified existing bonds between friends, kinsmen, and political allies, and by its absence, that something amiss in the exchange. Acceptance of falcons sometimes signaled troubled social ties, or the mending of ties once broken, but then repaired. Consider the rich significance of a letter dated December 18, 1533, in which Anthone Brusset wrote to Lord Lisle as follows:
“Sir, I have received your letter of the fifteenth day of this month by a falconer called Guillaume Arquin, and in furtherance of your request I have given him leave to buy some hawks in Flanders for a certain good friend of yours, and when he shall return, whatsoever birds he may have brought, I shall let them pass without paying any dues, for honour of you, and if there be any other thing in which I may do you service I will be heartily glad to perform it.” While it is uncertain who Anthone Brusset was, his respect for Lord Lisle’s position and authority, and his hopes for continued good will are clearly shown.

Other letters, such as one from Sir William Kingston to Lord Lisle on September 26, 1533, reveal the amount of time spent with the birds:

“The King hawks every day with goshawks, and with other hawks, that is to say, lanners, sparhawks, and merlins, both afore noon and after, if the weather serve.”

The higher nobility, however, did not spend their time training birds themselves. They often had dozens of falconers employed in various locales to train them, keep them healthy, and exercise them for ready sport whenever varied species of raptors might be available, appropriate, or in vogue for hunting whatever game happened to be the current enthusiasm of a nobleman and his guests. Such retained falconers accompanied their masters on both diplomatic missions and military campaigns, brief and extended, local and foreign, irregardless of the level of inconvenience and expense.

Paid falconers and other servants in the service of the nobility and to certain gentry traveled across the Channel to purchase falcons for their employers. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, wrote Lord Lisle toward just such a purpose requesting passage for his servant in October, 1533:

“This my letter shall be to desire you to be good lord unto this bearer my servant, William Atkins, insuring him your favour to pass in Flanders with such small baggage as he shall bring with him; which when he hath sold it at the most, with the same money buy for me certain hawks; praying your lordship also that at his return from thence that he may have passage with the first that shall come over…”

Clearly, such cooperation between nobles was not solely due to common love of falconry, but based on political reasons as well. In today’s world, government officials give favors to companies who contribute to their campaign funds; in medieval Europe, nobles gave falcons and other related favors in hopes that the favor would eventurally be repaid.

Master falconers were often paid extravagant amounts of money to work for kings and other nobles. The still extant office of Master of the Mews was a position created for the king’s best falconer, who obtained, trained, and groomed the king’s falcons, and kept them in constant readiness for hunting. In Asia, Marco Polo reported in 1276 that when Kublai Khan went hunting, his hunting party was comprised of more than five hundred raptors tended by ten thousand falconers. While these numbers are probably grossly exaggerated, they doubtlessly reflect Marco Polo’s awed impression, thus containing an element of psychological truth which helps gain a broader pciture of the popularity of falconry in the medieval world.

In sum, falconry and hawking exhibit a social history that bodes well for its furture. Originating in Asia and Arabia, where it served as a practical necessity and reached a high level of refinement as an economic necessity, as a sport, and as an art. These activities spread to England by diffusing first to Europe and then crossing the Channel. Although it played a minor role there in the economic system as a means of sustinence, its major functions were as activities elaborated upon and enjoyed by the nobility and those who wished to emulate their lifestyle, insofar as possible. Falconry developed, evolved into a highly visible social activity for several centuries, and then prepcipitously declined with the advanced urbanization and onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

Falconry continued to be practiced, however, by enthusiasts who can now be found in most of the world’s nations. These magnificent creatures, at first free in the wild, came to be used in a symbiotic relationship between bird and trainer that continues to this day. After their zenith as a sport and art practiced primarily by the nobility, and their nadir during a brief period when they were viewed as vermin and their future as a species seemed endangered, falcons and falconry not only survive, but thrive; the result of a model of cooperation between falconry enthusiasts and those who wish to protect the survival of raptors as a species and the existential integrity of the world of nature from which falconry emerged.

The Golden Age of falconry ended several centuries ago. Soon after the invention of firearms, falconry quickly declined in popularity, although it never completely disappeared. In many countires in the Middle East and parts of Asia falconry remains a popular sport of the nobility. Middle Eastern falconers, who can back their interest with virtually unlimited wealth from the oil industry, have been the primary supporters of the falconry market, often purchasing birds both legally and illegally caught. A controversial American federal investigation, dubbed Operation Falcon, revealed that some Saudi Arabian falconers were willing to spend more than $100,000 for a wild-caught bird.

In the early twentieth entury, there was a resurgence of interest in falconry in some European countries. Since World War II, falconry has dramatically increased in popularity in the United States. Farsighted conservation and animal-rights minded American falconers, however, encouraged and helped formulate and pass very strict federal and state regulations by which all falconers must abide. It protects the birds, respects the integrity of our natural world and, with governmental assistance, self-polices the practice of falconry in the United States. For example, novice falconers must apprentice with a Master Falconer for two years and pass rigid examinations before enjoying the privelege of being allowed more freedom in the species they can fly and more autonomy in their practice of the sport. For the same reasons and to achieve the same goals, the number and species of birds taken from the wild and their care in captivity are also strictly controlled.

Falconers today increasingly turn toward captive-bred raptors for hunting birds. This practice has seen the “invention” of interesting falcon hybrids and to an increased number of species used for falconry. Falconers can now use species with limited natural range, such as Harris’ hawks, which have excellent agility and an instinctive tendency to hunt cooperatively. In fact, groups of Harris’ hawks in the wild are called packs. Today Harris’ hawks are among the most popular birds used in American falconry.

Social Rank & Appropriate Bird

as Delineated in The Boke of St. Albans

  • Emperor: Golden Eagle, Vulture, & Merlin
  • King: Gyrfalcon (male & female)
  • Prince: Female Peregrine
  • Duke: Rock Falcon (subspecies of the Peregrine)
  • Earl: Peregrine
  • Baron: Male peregrine
  • Knight: Saker
  • Squire: Lanner Falcon
  • Lady: Female Merlin
  • Yeoman: Goshawk or Hobby
  • Priest: Female Sparrowhawk
  • Holywater clerk: Male Sparrowhawk
  • Knaves, Servants, Children: Old World Kestrel

Glossary of Falconry Terms

  • Aerie: the nest of a falcon or other raptor.
  • Austringer: to purists, someone who flies hawks, eagles, and owls.
  • Brancher: young bird taken just as it was beginning to stray from the nest, but before it learned how to make extended flights.
  • Cadger: a person who carried falcons to the field on a perch, or cadge, hanging from the neck.
  • Eyass: a chick taken from a wild nest or aerie and raised in captivity.
  • Falcon: strictly speaking, a female peregrine falcon.
  • Falconer: a person whom a falcon has concluded is its best meal ticket and a good guide to where to search for prey.
  • Gerkin: a male gyrfalcon.
  • Gyrfalcon: a female gyrfalcon.
  • Haggard: a young bird that has reached its full plumage.
  • Hawking: hunting with hawks and eagles instead of falcons.
  • Hen: a female hawk or eagle.
  • Intermewed: term applied to a bird having its first molt taking place in captivity.
  • Jesses: leather straps attached to birds’ legs.
  • Mantling: attitude when bird protectively huddles on kill with wings and tail spread and defies being touched.
  • Mews: a multi-unit housing facility for falcons, hawks, etc.
  • Musket: male sparrowhawk.
  • Passager or passage bird: a young bird taken into captivity during its first migration.
  • Stoop: a swift dive from high altitudes by a falcon intent on capturing prey.
  • Tiercel: a male peregrine falcon.

Borrowed Words

Falconry terms were at one time used only in the language of the nobility, who actively pursued the medieval art and sport. Modern falconers — relatively few in number — continue to use these terms with reference to falconry. Some of the words, though, have found their way into modern English and are in common usage, although the modern meaning is far different from the original.

The word codger, used today to describe an elderly person, can be traced back to the falconry term, cadger, or a person who carried a portable perch called a cadge for a falconer. Most cadgers were old falconers and, in time, a corruption of this came to be used to describe elderly persons.

Callow, which is a nestling raptor whose feathers are still in the blood-quill stage, is now used to describe someone who is young or untested.

When raptors drink, it is called bowsing. A bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer. the term used to describe the same tendency in humans.


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About the Author

Shawn Carroll lives in Kent, Ohio, where he is a student at Kent State University, majoring in Journalism. He spends much of his leisure time as a volunteer promoting northern Ohio’s game and wildlife programs. In this manner he has been able to indulge his fascination with and love of these magnificent raptors, so many of which are endangered in our modern world. His career goal is to become a journalist specializing in wildlife conservation planning, programs, and related issues.

This article originally appeared in two parts in the Ohio Chapter’s quarterly newsletter, The Crown & Helm, (January & May, 1996 issues) and we are extremely grateful to Mr. Carroll for permitting its inclusion in Fifteenth-Century Life. Drawings done by Susan Dexter.