Bear-baiting  in Old London

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting

On this day in 1623, John Chamberlain (see also January 8th posting) wrote in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton:

“The Spanish Ambassador is much delighted in beare baiting: he was the last weeke at Paris garden [in Southwark], where they shewed him all the pleasure they could  … and then turned a white [polar] beare into the Thames, where the dogges baited him swimming, which was the best sport of all”.

The Swiss visitor Thomas Platter had written of the practice of bear-baiting earlier, in 1599:

“Every Sunday [!] and Wednesday in London there are bear-baitings.  … The theatre is circular, with galleries … for spectators, [and] the space … below, beneath the clear sky, … unoccupied. In the middle of this place a large bear on a long rope was bound to a stake, then a number of English mastiffs were brought in and first shown to the bear, which they afterwards baited … .  [N]ow the excellence … of such mastiffs was evinced, for although they were much … mauled by the bear, they did not give in, but had to be pulled off by sheer force … .  The bears’ teeth were not sharp so to they could not injure the dogs; they have them broken short.  When the first mastiffs tired, fresh ones were brought in … .  When the bear was weary, another one was supplied … .  … When this bear was tired, a … bull was brought in … .  Then another powerful bear … .  Lastly they brought in an old blind bear which the boys hit  with … sticks; but he knew how to untie his leash and … ran back to his stall”.

And Henry Machyn, in 1554:

 “The sam day at after-non was a bere-beyten on the Banke syde, and ther the grett blynd bere [whose name was Sackerson] broke losse, and in ronnyng away he chakt a servyng man by the calff of the lege, and bytt a gret pesse away, and after by the hokyll-bone, that with-in iii days after he ded”.

The barbaric practice of animal-baiting began at least as long ago as the Middle Ages: the oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears” is from 1484, during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III.

Bear Gardens - Copy.JPG

The old  animal-baiting arenas on Bankside in   Southwark eventually closed down in the late seventeeth century, although  at the same time new ones opened up Hockley-in-the-Hole in Clerkenwell, “the home of low-caste sport.  Animal-baiting was only finally outlawed, under the “Cruelty to Animals Act”, in the early nineteenth century, in 1835.

 

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