Historical/ Modern Renaissance Faire/ The Renaissance

The British Renaissance and Renaissance Faires: Greyhounds and Greyhound Coursing, Part 1

A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.

Jenifer McDonald, aka Mistress Elinore Cotgreave, wife of the Hereditary Master of the Buckhounds (Sir John Savage VIII of Rocksavage), a performer and educator at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, contributed the information for this blog. Connie Teunis, me!, edited this blog.

Greyhounds. Believed to be an ancient dog breed, the first records of greyhound-like dogs appeared 8,000 years ago. Greyhounds were so highly valued by the ancient Egyptians that the birth of a greyhound puppy was considered by some second in importance only to the birth of a son. The greatest gift an Egyptian could give a Roman was a Greyhound. The Romans prized Greyhounds so highly that when the Romans came to the British Isles, the Roman nobles brought their Greyhounds with them. On the British Isles, Greyhounds became popular in both hunting and coursing. Greyhounds are even mentioned in the King James translation of the Bible.

Even the name Greyhound perhaps demonstrates their elevated status. The origin of the name is obscure, and has nothing to do with color. It could be from “Gradus”, the  Latin for “grade” or “degree”. The name may also derive from the Saxon “Grecht,” which means “Greek.” And only royalty and nobles were allowed to own Greyhounds.

So what is it about these dogs that made them so highly valued?

From the Egyptians to the Greeks, Romans to the Renaissance, the term Greyhound actually encompassed a class of dogs known as “sight houndsh.” Sight houndsh include the breeds recognized today as Greyhounds, Russian Wolfhounds, Scottish Deerhounds and Irish Wolfhounds, and others. Like all dogs, sight dogs have a keen sense of smell. However, the Greyhounds are unique for their outstanding visual acuity; sighthounds can visually track game up to a quarter of a mile away.

Greyhounds were used for hunting in forests. This provided sport for the Nobles which helped keep the Nobles in shape for war. Greyhounds were used for almost all game. However, they were often paired with other dogs so that if the Greyhound lost sight of the prey or trapped a particularly dangerous prey, the other dogs could assist. When hunting smaller game, Greyhounds were often paired with terriers; the much smaller terriers could harry the prey out of its hole. When hunting large game such as bear or wild boar, the Greyhound was paired with the much larger Mastiff. And with all hunts, the Greyhound might be paired with a nose tracker, such as a St. Hubert’s hound, today known as the Bloodhound. If the Greyhound lost sight of the prey, the nose-hound could pick up the scent and the hunt could continue, although at a slower pace.

In 1066, William of Normandy (aka William the Conqueror) ruled England. He was an adamant hunter and established areas to be set aside as royal forests. He also codified Forest Laws. These laws determined who was allowed to enter the Royal Forests and who was allowed to hunt.

In 1066, most British commoners survived on subsistence living. The knowledge of game in a nearby forest was very tempting. However, William of Normandy and other kings wanted to keep the Royal Forests primarily for hunting, especially when they realized that granting Nobles licenses to hunt in these forests could provide the monarchy with a useful income. The Nobles living near the various royal forests could be granted a Royal License to take a certain amount of game.

Foresters were appointed by the King or Queen to keep track of what game was in the forest and what was killed in a hunt. This enabled the King or Queen to know if any commoners were poaching animals or if any Nobles were abusing their licenses. After all, if all or most of the game was taken from any one forest, the local Nobles would not buy any more licenses.

As is the nature of humans, as Nobles gathered together for hunts, they would compare the dogs and brag about their dogs’ abilities. With Greyhounds, the Nobles would brag about the speed of their dogs in following game. However, forests could be full of obstacles- downed trees, shrubbery, streams- and would not provide a true measure of a dog’s speed. Thus the ancient sport of Coursing played part. The Roman Flavius Arrianus (Arrian) wrote “On Hunting Hares” in 124 AD. He tells his readers that the purpose of coursing is not to catch the hare, but to enjoy the chase itself: “The true sportsman does not take out his dogs to destroy the hares, but for the sake of the course and the contest between the dogs and the hares, and is glad if the hares escape.”  Courses were laid out so that the Greyhounds could run unhindered. These courses could cover as much as 5 acres of land. The Nobles would then wager, perhaps up to 50 pounds per match. Fifty pounds was equal to the annual salary for a Lady in Waiting or the Master of the Hounds. However, if the King or Queen was present at the course, the nobles might not always present their best dogs. If a dog performed too well, the King or Queen could claim it as their own, which was their right.

To begin a course, a “hare -finder” Harrier would catch and bring in a hare for the dogs to chase. At the end of each race, the Harrier would then catch the hare and put it in a basket. Nobles on horseback would follow their coursing hounds. The purpose of following was so that the Nobles could award points. However, this could be financially dangerous for the Nobles.

Greyhounds are the second quickest land animal, able to reach speeds up to 45 mph in just 3 strides. However, Greyhounds are sprinters and cannot maintain that speed for long. Horses can reach speeds up to 30 mph, but they are able to maintain that speed longer than the Greyhounds. So even though Greyhounds would outrun the horses initially, the horses would eventually catch up. Then each Noble had to be skilled in riding so that his horse remained behind the requisite 40 yards and did not trample a dog on the field; should that happen, the Noble that “did the mischief” would have to pay “reparations” for all the day’s wagers, which could come to a considerable sum.

Historically, Coursing was perhaps considered a “Gentleman’s Game” and  participants were assumed to know the rules without writing them down. Elizabeth I also loved the sport of coursing. Sometime after she ascended to the throne in 1558, and before his death for treason on 1569, she had Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, codify the rules of Coursing. These rules became known as Laws of the Leash. Elizabeth wanted control over her Nobles in all matters, including Coursing. As jousting is known as the Sport of Kings in honor of her father, so now is coursing known as the Sport of Queens.

There are 20 rules as laid out by the Duke of Norfolk during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Some of these rules of coursing are (translated somewhat from Elizabethan):

  1. You ought not to course a hare with more than a brace of Greyhounds.
  2. Twelve score yards law ought to be given before the dogs are loosed, unless there be danger of losing her.
  3. The dog that gives the first turn, if after that there be neither cote, slip, nor wrench, wins the wager.
  4. A go-by, or bearing the hare, is equivalent to two turns.
  5. If neither dog turns the hare, he that leads last to the covert wins.
  6. If all the course be equal, he that bares the hare shall win, and if she be not borne, the course shall be adjudged dead.
  7. If a dog takes a fall in a course, and yet performs his part, he may challenge the advantage of a turn more than he gave.
  8. If by misfortune a dog be ridden over in his course, the course is void, and to say the truth, he that did the mischief ought to make reparation for the damage.
  9. A cote is when a Greyhound goeth endways by his fellow and gives the hare a turn.
  10. Those that are judges of the Leash must give their judgement presently, before they depart the field.

Elizabeth changed two of the original rules so as to increase the hare’s lead and to reduce the number of hounds on the field. The goal of these changes was to prevent the hare from being caught by the dogs and killed (thus ending the race) and to prevent the dogs from being trampled by the numerous horses also on the field.

At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, a visitor will have a chance to watch the Coursing of the Queen’s Hounds. The course at the Virginia Renaissance Faire (VaRF) is smaller than the traditional 5 acres, but the excitement is just as great.

At VaRF, the dogs do not chase a live hare; rather they chase a fuzzy squawker toy. These toys have in the past 17 seasons included an octopus, floppy bunny, pieces of fuzzy toys and even small animal pelts. The lure is attached to a heavy nylon cord (not fishing line as this could harm the dogs). The cord is then rapidly reeled onto a lure machine. The  machine (made by Jenifer McDonald’s father, a retired Navy electronics technician- thank you Master Chief Allen!) is made from a car battery, a Ford starter motor and a flywheel. Ingenuity is an integral part of VaRF!

Before the course begins, the dogs are fitted with muzzles. These muzzles are not meant to protect the dogs from each other. (These dogs are all friends and have even been known to do “sleepovers” with each other.) Nor are the muzzles for the protection of the human Releasers and Catchers. The dogs wear muzzles for the safety of the fuzzy lure! Like the hare of old, we want it to run another day!

Before the start of the Coursing, most of the dogs are lined up in pairs with their Fewterers, or human Slippers/ Releasers. However, if you have ever been to VaRF, you may have seen one of the dogs, MaJoR (MJR Sean), impatiently pacing with his human by Constance’s Bakery, waiting for his chance to run. These dogs LOVE to run, and Major most of all.

For each course, the dogs are released in ”couples” on the count of 3; anyway, that was initially the hope. Unfortunately, these dogs have learned to count to 3 and will try to cheat by running on 2, so our Releasers have to count to 3 in various languages!

There are 3 human Catchers at the finish line. Three Catchers are used for each pair of dogs just in case one slips past a Catcher. The Catchers catch the dogs by the collars and attach short leashes to the collars. The Releasers then come with the original walking leads, attach the leads to the collars and check the dogs’ gaits for any possible injury. The dogs are then taken to the Hound Tent to start the cool down process: Each dog is draped with a cool, wet towel and spends the rest of the day resting and being admired and petted by Faire visitors.

We hope you have a chance to watch the Coursing of the Queen’s Hounds at the Virginia Renaissance Faire. Afterwards, stop by “The Hound Tent” to talk to the human partners of Her Majesty’s Hounds and admire these magnificent dogs.

The “soul” purpose of Her Majesty’s Hounds at the Virginia Renaissance Faire is to advocate for and educate people about retired racing Greyhounds through living history. All of the dogs were bred to race, but may have never raced professionally. Greyhounds have been a part of The Virginia Renaissance Faire since 2002. You may find them online at Facebook.com/HMHounds

To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!

The Virginia Renaissance Faire is produced by Out of the Woodwork Productions, a 501C(3) non-profit. To make a tax deductible contribution, please go to www.paypal.me/VaRenFaire and click on the donation button.

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