I am against blood sports. Having said that I cannot deny that the colourful scene and exciting atmosphere outside of the White Hart in Lewes when the Southdown and Eridge Hunt assembles on Boxing Day mornings makes for a great spectacle.
As I understand it these days the participation of real foxes is no longer mandatory so the creatures can presumably vote with their paws for a trouble-free Happy Xmas just like the rest of us. Which in turn means I can go off to the pub with a clear conscience.
It wasn’t always thus. In April 1747 an advertisement appeared in the Sussex Weekly Advertiser giving notice of a “Cock Match in Brighthelmstone between the Gentlemen of Petworth and those of East Sussex”.
Cockfighting was a popular pastime back then and a lot of money was wagered on the outcome of the battles. Salvington near Worthing is home to “Old Sussex House”. This 16th-century building is listed and retains upstairs what is probably the last cockfighting pen in the county. It’s surrounded by a thin oak trellis that’s been hammered together with hand-made nails.
Back in the days when the “sport” was commonplace, cockfights could be social occasions shared with friends and neighbours, who were invited to bring their prize-fighting birds along and match them in a “cockpit”. This last might be a purpose-built arena such as that at Salvington or simply the stone floor of a room or hallway.
Cockfighting also took place at the George Inn, Rye, and was very much associated in the 18th century with gambling for high stakes using money made in the lucrative pursuit of smuggling.
Champion birds were valuable commodities so such encounters were rarely to the death as owners would rather their investments - even losing ones - survived to fight another day.
Stag hunts were different. Being big beasts they couldn’t be reined in when cornered at the end of a chase. Besides which the resulting venison at least provided food. Still, I have to feel sorry for the stag turned out in the Steine on a Sunday in October 1780. The hapless animal was pursued eastwards for five miles before it jumped to its death off the cliffs at Rottingdean.
Interestingly, in the previous century, the authorities had made strenuous efforts to ban such pursuits.
This was during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. A cabal of Major-Generals were charged with enforcing moral reforms. Horse racing, cockfighting and bear-baiting were abolished; laws against drunkenness, licentiousness and blasphemy were rigorously enforced. Into the bargain unruly alehouses were closed. Their success with such measures turned out to be temporary!
One blood sport that fortunately did not catch on in Britain was that of “fox tossing”. Called “fuchsprellen” by the Germans who invented it, the pastime involved throwing live animals high in the air and became popular in parts of the Continent in the 17th century. “Enjoyed” in the main by the aristocracy, participants at each end of a sling would catapult the fox upwards. With mixed couples it was all the rage. One hazard was that the terrified animals that survived being tossed would sometimes turn on the tossers.
Not just foxes but a whole menagerie of animals could be tossed. The impressively titled Augustus II The Strong, King of Poland, Elector of Saxony and Imperial Vicar, once hosted a tossing contest in Dresden which featured 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers and 21wildcats. Augustus himself joined in the fun.
Swedish envoy Esaias Pufendorf witnessed a fox-tossing contest in Vienna in March 1672 and noted in his diary his surprise at seeing the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I enthusiastically egging on the court “dwarfs and boys” in clubbing to death any injured animals. He thought it remarkable to see the Emperor having “small boys and fools as comrades, to my eyes a little alien from the imperial gravity”.
I promise you, I haven’t made any of this up.