During a recent interview I was asked what I did when I wasn’t writing. The question gave me pause as I have been happily writing fulltime for over six years.
I am never ‘not writing’ and so I had to think about what I once did in my spare time.
I recalled days spent hot air ballooning over the countryside, and even longer days consumed with attempts at parallel parking in the city; however my most memorable free time was spent with a hawk on my glove hiking in woodlands. Falconry became my most adored activity, as it is a totally incandescent experience.
Often I would try to explain to friends the exhilarating feeling of hiking through the forest with the hawk zipping from tree to tree; the bell on her foot jingling softly to let me know she was not far away. I likened it to having a puppy at my heels. But recently I discovered an even better description in one of the most marvelous books I have ever read:
“It’s like having your own personal angel.”
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: http://amzn.to/1TmnJsA
The bond between falconers and their birds is almost mystic. It is like no other I have ever encountered. Your spirit can soar with the bird as you meld to their minds, sensing their instincts, their joys, and their fears. You see the world through their eyes. It is a lovely state of being—blessedly having very little to do with human concerns.
Elizabeth Bennet was very fond of walking and enjoyed those small pockets of quiet time to explore her private thoughts. What if Lizzy had a pet hawk to accompany her on her walks? Would she have been considered less of a proper young lady or perhaps more of an avant-garde thinker? Would her falconry have altered how Darcy perceived her?
A bit of research into the history of falconry in England was in order. I discovered that the fascination with reviving ancient arts, which included falconry, began in the Regency period and grew during the Victorian period. Falconry or Hawking had been a popular pastime and status symbol in Britain since the Middle Ages. Noblemen maintained lavish mews for their birds, and often treated them much better than their tenants.
At one time falconry was quite popular with the clergy. Can you imagine Mr. Collins with a bird on his fist?
In some religious orders, falcons were even taken to religious services. Frequently, nuns carried their birds with them into church. This information immediately conjured an image of my eighth grade nun, Sister Irma, armed with a falcon. The good sister was formidable enough!
The ‘Boke of St Albans’ by Dame Juliana Barnes was published in 1486. Dame Juliana was the prioress of St. Mary of Sopwell, near St. Albans in Hertfordshire. Within her book, she explains in detail all that was needed to care for birds including the list of who was permitted to own which bird. The rules of bird ownership remained in place for centuries. Severe penalties were attached to owning a bird ranked above one’s social position.
The pecking order (pun intended)
Gryfalcon: might be owned by a king.
Peregrine: owned by a prince, whereas an Earl might own a tierce, but a duke could own a subspecies of the peregrine called a Rock Falcon.
Saker: this was a knight’s bird. At almost three pounds it is one of the largest falcon species.
Lanner: these fast flying birds were permitted for the use of a squire. They were a great for catching birds or bats.
Goshawk: permitted birds for farmers. They are temperamental birds but very good at providing food for the table. They can bring down a partridge, pheasant or hare. They may live to almost twenty years providing a long working life.
Sparrowhawk: The female* was permissible for the use of a priest. The male, called a musket, permitted for a holy water clerk. These birds can be fickle and are prone to die for no apparent reason—now that is really fickle!
*Female hawks were much preferred to males as they are larger and usually swifter.
Kestrel: servants and children were allowed to own kestrels. This bird is the tiniest hawk and will only catch small rodents—an important function for maintaining stores on a farm.
The picture should give you an idea of the size of this “lady’s bird.” Perhaps it fit in a reticule? Just kidding!
A lady would use a female merlin. It is a brave hunter and able to take down species bigger than itself.
Elizabeth Bennet might have owned a Merlin hawk. Imagine Lizzy walking the fields in a lovely day dress with a huge leather glove on her hand! Now put a Merlin hawk on that glove. Wouldn’t that be an amazing sight?
Note: I have been asked about the size of the bird on my glove in the picture above. She may look large but she weighs in only 1 and ¼ pounds. If you allow the bird to eat more than a nibble of the prey it catches, then you might as well pack it in for the day. As increasing their weight by even more than a few ounces will slow them down and prevent them from flying with enthusiasm for the rest of the day.
There is an art to sneaking their freshly caught prey from them before they feast. Obviously the bird is not happy if you take their meal away and so a bit of a bait and switch is required. The falconer (me) carries a little snack in my leather bag. I put it on my glove to distract the bird. The hawk thinks: that looks good. She hops onto the glove where she has been trained to expect goodies. Meantime I grab the fallen prey and stuff it in my bag. I know… ewww! The first few times I attempted it my hands shook like mad.
A few interesting tidbits:
During the Hundred Years’ War, the English took their falcons with them when they crossed the Channel. It is said that Edward III had thirty falconers with him when he invaded France.
England created the first laws protecting birds.
The proverb ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ originates from falconry.
So what do you think?
Would Lizzy have enjoyed falconry, if her big leather glove matched her dress?
Would Darcy have been impressed?
Coming July 2016
Book 8 in the Mister Darcy series comedic mysteries!