Bunnies – but not chocolate Easter ones!

detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 156 

detail from the Queen Mary Psalter,       c.1310-20, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 156 

I was at Kew the other day and encountered a large branded golden bunny on the lawn: a symbol of how commercial everywhere, however historic and significant, has had to become in recent years.  One of the greatest botanic gardens and scientific research centres  in the world, reduced to reminding us that “Chocoholics of all ages can follow an Easter trail around the Gardens to collect clues before heading over to one of the on-site shops or gates to pick up their chocolate treat.”

detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 156 

detail from the Queen Mary Psalter,       c.1310-30BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 156 

I suppose, in these days of austerity, it could be a lot worse, and there are obviously two sides to everything. Kew are able to tie it in with some good educational work, and yes maybe  it might help  introduce future generations to the joys of horticulture and history.  Nevertheless, despite the fact that I know I am a grumpy old  cynic, it’s hardly a lesson in national pride in the Year of the Garden.

But apart from a sigh of exasperation at the levels to which Kew has to go to raise cash it alerted me to the fact that it’s Easter and that I hadn’t planned anything remotely appropriate for this week’s post. So, rant over, bunnies it is – although non-chocolate ones!

from the Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 155v 

from the Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 155v 

Believe it or not rabbits were not always a common sight in the countryside and garden in Britain. Indeed, unlike the hare, they are not even native.  Archaeologists have found rabbit bones on Roman sites in the southern and eastern parts of England, but if language is anything to go by, and hard though it is to believe, the rabbits the Romans introduced did not escape and thrive after their departure, as there is no Old English word for them.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady shooting an arrow at a rabbit., from The taymouth Hours, f.68v, British Library

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady shooting an arrow at a rabbit. from The Taymouth Hours, f.68v, British Library

1st quarter of the 14th century, Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht ('The Maastricht Hours'). 1. (ff. 2v-13r), British Library Stowe Ms 17

Woman carrying a rabbit in a basket, 1st quarter of the 14th century, ‘The Maastricht Hours’. 1. (ff. 2v-13r), British Library Stowe Ms 17

Rabbits were deliberately re-introduced after the Norman Conquest. Then, again hard to believe, they were considered great rarities and highly valued both for their meat and their fur which was considered a luxury.  There is evidence that they were farmed on islands and  coastal sites during the twelfth century, with records from Lundy, the Scilly Isles and the Isle of Wight dating from 1176.  By the 13thc there is evidence of rabbits being farmed elsewhere,  one of the first being the royal warren at Guildford in 1241. and by then, as a measure of their value,  one rabbit was worth more than a workman’s daily wage.

Rabbits were  carefully reared and cosseted inside specially enclosed protected areas known as warrens or coneygarths  from the Middle English term – coning-erth. [At that time adults of the species were called coneys  from the Latin  cuniculus whilst  rabbit generally referred only to the young.] But since only those with manorial rights could own a warren, rabbits enjoyed the same exclusive protection as, for example, the pigeons in a lord’s dovecote.

http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/rabb_warr.htm

A Typical Dartmoor Pillow Mound http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/rabb_warr.htm

The coneygarth usually contained one or more ‘pillow mounds’ – rectangular flat-topped heaps of earth, up to 20m in length, sometimes interconnected, and often containing stone-lined tunnels. They are ideal for rocky areas where rabbits are unable to dig their way out!, otherwise they needed to be surrounded by a water-filled ditch.

There was at least one wonderful exception to these artificial constructions. The Abbot of Cirencester Abbey in 1291 constructed  a rabbit warren but his was made in the remains of the town’s Roman amphitheatre, where presumably, once the gaps in the ruined walls had been stopped up, the rabbits could roam freely.

Rabbit warrens were a very common feature of the mediaeval and early modern rural landscape, and continued to be built right through until the end of the 19th, but according to Tom Williamson, are very poorly recorded in the historical record. Even the most recent warrens are sometimes only known because of their names  or references in estate papers, so there is a great deal of reliance on the archaeological evidence for what we know of them.

Reconstruction of Medieval 'pillow mounds' in a rabbit warren, within Radholme or Leagram Deer Park in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, in about 1500 by Jeannie Anderson http://www.jennieanderson.co.uk/page3.htm

Reconstruction of Medieval ‘pillow mounds’ in a rabbit warren, within Radholme or Leagram Deer Park in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, in about 1500 by Jeannie Anderson
http://www.jennieanderson.co.uk/page3.htm

The remains of about 2,000 warrens  thought to survive in Britain, but as they are often no more than small bumps in the landscape they can be easy to overlook.  The largest surviving concentrations, of at least 20 sites, are on the southern side of Dartmoor, and in the Breckland, but there are, for example, also at least a dozen in Blenheim Park.

For a more detailed look at the Dartmoor examples see:

http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/lookingafter/laf-culturalheritage/laf-archaeology/feature-pages/feature-of-the-month-january

For a more detailed look at the warrens of the Breckland take a look at:

http://www.brecsoc.org.uk/breckland_warrens%20FINAL.pdf

If you want to see even more examples then  a google search for “pillow mounds” will bring up dozens more photos and references in virtually ever corner of the country to while away a few more hours!

Thetford Warren Lodge © Copyright Ashley Dace 2011and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Thetford Warren Lodge
© Copyright Ashley Dace 2011, and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Drawing of Thetford Warren Lodge by Thomas Martin, 1740 © Thetford Ancient House Museum, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

Drawing of Thetford Warren Lodge by Thomas Martin, 1740 © Thetford Ancient House Museum, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service http://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

The keepers of the rabbits, known as warreners,  were usually one of the  highest-paid of manorial officials. They were responsible  for the  feeding and care of the rabbits, for trapping them when required, and for  guarding them against predators, both animal and human. Rabbit meat and skins were sufficiently valuable to encourage  armed gangs of poachers to  attempt raiding the warrens.  Warreners usually lived on site in specially built houses or lodges, as part of the warren itself.

The newly restored Milden warren lodge

The newly restored Mildenhall warren lodge

At Thetford, a rare surviving example, the lodge is semi-fortified, more like a miniature castle than a house. It was built around 1400 by the prior of Thetford Priory.  The lodge had substantial walls and only one entrance. There was  a viewing platform on the parapet from which the warrener, who lived on the upper floor, to survey the surrounding countryside.   Inside  the ground floor was used  for their traps, nets, and racks on which to hang meat and dry skins.  The only other surviving Breckland warren lodge,  the 600 year old year  Mildenhall lodge has recently been restored by the Friends of Thetford Forest.

For more on Thetford Warren Lodge, now maintained by English Heritage, see:

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/thetford-warren-lodge/

and for more on the restoration of Mildenhall see:

http://www.fotf.org.uk/content/micro_sites/fotf_projects/fotf_projects_mildenhall_warren.shtml

scene of a lady sending a hound into a rabbit warren in order to flush out rabbits.  The Yamouth Hours,f.70v, British Librray

scene of a lady sending a hound into a rabbit warren in order to flush out rabbits.  The Taymouth Hours,f.70, British library

And the result The yamouth Hours, s.  f.70v, British Library

And the result!
The Taymouth Hours, s.  f.70v, British Library

For much of the mediaeval period these  rabbit warrens were almost the sole source of supply for rabbits.  Of course some undoubtedly escaped but the rights of  free-warren meant that hunting rabbits, along with game birds and hares, also became a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.

You wouldn’t go to all this trouble just for a common pest, however pretty it might be. It was because rabbit farming was such profitable industry.

 

Rushton Triangular Lodge,© Copyright Chris Downer, 1999 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Rushton Triangular Lodge,© Copyright Chris Downer, 1999 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It was certainly profitable for the gentry in the 16th and 17th  centuries and there is evidence for new warrens being established on estates all over country.  There can be no doubt though that the  most spectacular warrener’s lodge was  built in the late 16thc  by Sir Thomas Tresham, on his estate at Rushton in Northants.

Sir Thomas had inherited his estates at a very young age and determined to improve them using the latest agricultural methods.  He emparked [or enclosed] a large part of his estates and began intensively farming sheep which were sold all over the midlands as well as London. He then established a warren at Rushton which became a money-making sideline for the estate with rabbits being bred for the London market.  As the warren was established well away from the Rushton Hall itself it meant  building a warrener’s lodge .   This  was started in 1594, and what a warrener’s lodge it proved to be.

 © Copyright Philip Halling , 2014and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

© Copyright Philip Halling , 2014and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Of course, as you probably guessed from looking at the photos there was more to Tresham’s lodge than meets the eye…or rather it’s  all there for the eye to see but the eye perhaps chooses not to understand.

So what was going on?

 © Copyright Philip Halling 2014and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

© Copyright Philip Halling 2014and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In fact Tresham built two towers at about the same time. The second, now gone, was apparently much simpler and more conventional in design.  The usual story about the surviving tower is that the  warrener stored  his equipment and rabbit skins and meat etc  in the lower floors and lived upstairs. However, given that there were two towers, and the second was plainer,  it’s much more likely that it was  that one which  was used for the more utilitarian purposes of rabbit keeping. Which leaves the question of what was the bizarre triangular tower for?

© Copyright Christopher Hilton 1991, and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Christopher Hilton 1991, and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The reason Sir Thomas needed to improve the returns from his estate and so, amongst other things,  kept rabbits on a grand scale,  was because of his need to raise money.

This was not just because he always a generous host, regularly feeding his tenantry,  friends, and county society, but also because of his personal circumstances.   Like all good parents he wanted good matches for his daughters, and providing marriage settlements and jointures was an extremely expensive business, especially if you wanted them to marry upwards as Tresham clearly did. Four of his daughters married to peers or future peers – and the cost of their settlements ran  to £12000. Next, his son and heir Francis  was a bit of a wastrel, and frequently needing bailing out by his parents.  At least £4000 is recorded for his fines, debts  and bribes to get him out of trouble.

1303053_94f829ee

© Copyright JThomas 2006, and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

And finally,  and more personal still, Tresham needed cash because he was a devout Catholic.  This was at a time when Catholicism was regarded with high levels of suspicion. Elizabth I was prepared to tolerate Catholics who outwardly conformed to the rites of the Anglican church, or at least   attend church services every so often. But Tresham was stubborn and refused to do so. As a result he was always being fined for his religious beliefs – or rather for his refusal to pay lip-service to the establihsed church.  His recusancy cost him about £8000 as well as long stretches of imprisonment during the course of hs life.

Sir Thomas Tresham, 1543-1605 Britsih Museum

Sir Thomas Tresham, 1543-1605
Britsih Museum

Tresham is a very complex figure. Highly educated and intellectual he seems to have built the triangular lodge not for his warrener but as a  testament to his own faith.   It was far enough away from the house, and high enough, to see anyone approaching. It could have served as place of contemplation for his, or even as a report of the period suggested, even as a place for  clandestine Catholic masses.

 

 

As you may have guessed from the photos the base of the building is an equilateral triangle. There are three floors with three windows, containing triangles, crosses and trefoils,  to each floor. On the top of each wall are three gables.  Whilst outwardly the theme of ‘three’ represented the Christian Holy Trinity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so  was acceptable to Anglicans, its symbolism was more obviously Catholic.

Around the exterior walls are inscriptions in Latin, as well as numbers, armorial bearings and  other carvings. On the entrance front is the inscription ‘Tres Testimonium Dant’ (‘there are three that give witness’), a Biblical quotation from St John’s Gospel referring to the Trinity. It is also a pun on Tresham’s name; his wife called him ‘Good Tres’ in her letters.  Inside the building are three hexagonal rooms, each with three triangular rooms leading off them.   Finally the three walls of the lodge are each 33 feet wide, and of course, Jesus Christ was 33 when he was crucified that first Good Friday.

So in a roundabout way this post did prove to be about Easter after all!

More on rabbits and more on Tresham shortly.!

from the Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 155v 

from the Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal 2 B VII  f. 155v 

 

 

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2 Responses to Bunnies – but not chocolate Easter ones!

  1. sophie Piebenga says:

    Why just ladies in the illustrations?

    • Thanks for a very interesting question…and I don’t know if there’s an answer. I included the images with women because I wanted to show soemthinga little different/unexpected but thinking about it in retrosepct, in fcat, when I was checking gallery/museum websites many of the images about rabbit hunting showed women, although most hunting scenes with other animals show men. It might be because it was contained and safe – ie the rabbits couldn’t really escape and were hardly going to be dangerous to the hunter. Also there was no blood involved – at least initially in trapping/killing them. So maybe it was seen as a more suitbale form of hunting for women cf men. The images also largely came from religious texts which were often prepared specially for women… and most of the ‘secular’ images in the Queen mary Psaletr for example feature mainly women.

      Do you have any thoughts on why there is a predominance of women in such scenes?

      David

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