How hunting became the sport of kings

WE’VE been transported back to medieval England.

A quick trip round the M25 and we’re visiting an extraordinary edifice in a “royal” forest, which is why our thoughts are flashing back across the centuries to a time when hunting was something of an obsession for the monarchs of the day.

The building dates from Tudor times but reflects the importance of hunting over the previous 200 years – and not just for those in power.

POPULAR PURSUIT: hunting was important in medieval society

We’ve come to Epping Forest, but although it’s only an hour from home, this is one of only a handful of ancient royal forests which survive around the UK – along with the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Sherwood.

Here, as we discovered in the Forest of Dean last year, is a lost world of forest laws and practices dating back to a time when “kingswoods” that came directly under the king’s control were vast tracts of land covering a third of southern England, including whole counties like Essex.

Following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, King William placed a score of areas under forest law, a Norman institution imported from the continent that was unanimously unpopular with the local population.

FOREST COURT: the Speech House Hotel in the Forest of Dean

It was a separate legal system with its own courts and officers designed to protect and preserve the “venison and vert” for the King’s pleasure – with severe punishments for poaching and taking wood from the forest.

You might think those early monarchs were too busy waging war on France and Scotland to spend so much time in pursuit of deer and boar, but hunting was a favourite pastime for the king and his nobles, offering sport, exercise, entertainment and a chance to practise skills that could be of use in wartime.

By the 14th century there were dozens of royal forests across the land where the ruling class could pursue their sport, whether hunting on horseback with hounds, shooting driven game from stands or using birds of prey such as hawks and falcons.

SPORTING PASSION: Henry VIIII was an enthusiastic hunter

Some two centuries later and Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for hunting took him to deer parks across the south of England – and it was during his reign, in 1543, that a rather extraordinary Tudor grandstand was erected here in Epping Forest, now known as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge after his daughter.

Henry’s interest in hunting as a young man was useful in helping to project his image as a renaissance prince, but by the time the lodge was erected he had injured himself in a jousting accident and was painfully lame.

It’s not known if he ever even visited the building, though Elizabeth I renovated it in 1589 and legend has it that she actually rode her horse up the stairs in celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

GRANDSTAND VIEW: the hunting lodge today

Although the lodge itself is a relatively basic museum, it’s part of a much larger success story dating back to the late 19th century, when the City of London Corporation responded to public outcry and stepped in to rescue almost 6,000 acres of the ancient forest from destruction.

That means there are countless other attractions to uncover in the forest, but for now we’re just enjoying the view, trying to imagine how Elizabeth’s powerful guests might have looked out over this landscape almost half a millennium ago.

Hounds would be trained to hunt down the stag or boar by its scent, responding to commands on a horn before the huntsmen would circle the animal and chase it back towards the hunting party.

OPEN OUTLOOK: spectators would look out on a Tudor hunt

The nobles and their ladies rode on horseback behind the hounds and chased the prey through the dense forest, potentially for hours, before the prey was finally caught and killed, a song being played to honour the dying animal before a great feast was prepared with the freshly-hunted venison or boar as the main course.

High-status guests would have looked out from wide openings here, possibly even using crossbows to shoot at prey driven towards the grandstand.

And of course in Tudor times there would have been no stinting on hospitality when it came to the array of meats and poultry, Mediterranean fruits and Eastern spices on offer to show off the power, wealth and generosity of the monarch.

FIT FOR A KING: guests could expect unstinting hospitality

Some of the timbers in the lodge date from the 16th century, when timber-framed buildings were made from freshly cut “green” oak that was full of sap and would crack as it dried out.

But the fireplace is Victorian and a reminder of the 19th-century history of the hunting lodge, when the lodge’s wall hangings so inspired textile artist William Morris as a boy that they may have influenced the tapestries he started to weave in the 1870s.

The lodge served as a manorial court before opening as a museum in 1895.

VICTORIAN ERA: the hunting lodge fireplace

Given modern views about hunting, many visitors may have mixed emotions about some of the history they stumble across in Epping Forest.

Just as it’s hard not to get indigestion contemplating the profligate feasting of the Tudor court, it’s distressing to read about animals like lynx and brown bear existing in Britain when the Romans left, or about species like wolves and wild boar being hunted to extinction.

The harsh punishments of the forest courts and oppression of the peasant population may rankle too, along with those gruesome Tudor sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting.

PERIOD CHARM: the Butler’s Retreat coffee shop

But you can escape some of the darker memories of past centuries just next door, where a beautifully restored Essex barn offers an idyllic retreat with some great coffee and cake, or something a little more substantial.

Butler’s Retreat also boasts outside seating with stunning views over Chingford Plain and an array of tasty home-made food options, making it a perfect stopping-off spot on a sunny day.

AL FRESCO MEAL: the outside tables at Butler’s Retreat

From here it’s also only a stone’s throw to Connaught Water, a perfect place to walk off the cake and ideal for first-time visitors to the area keen to find a popular easy-access path ideal for the whole family.

Take a relaxed ramble round the lake, which boasts a variety of resident wildfowl from mandarin ducks and geese to swans and great crested grebes, or embark on a slightly longer trail, one of dozens fanning out from here that are documented by local walking enthusiasts on their blogs.

EASY ACCESS: the lakeside path at Connaught Water

After a brief wander round the lake, it’s time to head back round the M25, head still full of visions of medieval monarchs and their friends rampaging through the forest in search of a noble hart.

It’s been only the briefest of introductions to a quite extraordinary landscape, but as it’s only an hour’s drive from home, it’s much more accessible than you might think: a fascinating green oasis just a walk, ride or tube journey away from the Capital with a rich heritage and a wealth of attractions for the first-time visitor.

Find out more about visiting Epping Forest here.