The Magazine

After the Fox

Riding to hounds and the death of Old England.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Blood Sport

Hunting in Britain
Since 1066

by Emma Griffin

Yale, 296 pp., $55

In Hunting the Fox (1921), his celebrated handbook, Lord Willoughby de Broke praised the resiliency of foxhunting.

When we declared war upon Germany in 1914, many people thought, some perhaps hoped that foxhunting in the British Isles was doomed. It would appear that the former are likely to experience a pleasant shock .  .  . while the latter .  .  . may be disappointed. .  .  . Never were cavalry so quickly or so well mounted as those regiments of Regulars and Yeomanry who embarked for France in August 1914. .  .  . Foxhunting will surely survive from its own innate qualities. The manner in which it has lived through all the obstacles of war time is a sufficient testimony to its vitality.

Lord Willoughby, a Tory radical who owned 18,000 acres in Warwickshire, and once threatened to lead a cavalry charge up Whitehall if H.H. Asquith and the Liberals granted Ireland home rule, might have somewhat exaggerated the contribution of foxhunting to England's war effort, but he was right about what would ultimately decide its future. "Hunting," he said, "depends for its existence on the support of public opinion."

In Blood Sport Emma Griffin confirms the accuracy of Willoughby's analysis. Since the 18th century, foxhunting had survived any number of immense social upheavals-the Industrial Revolution, the coming of the railways, the great reform bills, two world wars, the spoliation of the English countryside to make way for the suburb and the automobile-but what it could not survive was a campaign to subvert its public support, fully backed by Labour parliamentarians.

When Willoughby tried to call to mind the typical opponent of foxhunting, he could only see a spoilsport: "Anti-social and un-English in whatever rank of life he is to be found .  .  . he could best be described as the spiritual descendant of that often-quoted band of reformers who wished to put a stop to bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." With the passing of the 2004 Hunting Act, this antisocial, un-English creature was in the saddle, he had the whip hand, and foxhunting found itself finally at bay.

Professor Griffin wants to see moral principle behind this reversal of fortune: "The most enduring argument to come from the anti-hunting lobby was their belief that it was wrong for people to take pleasure in the act of killing. It was not simply the fact of cruelty that offended them. .  .  . It was the human participation, and indeed delight, in the act of killing that consistently underpinned their opposition to hunting."

But her research shows that there was no consistent argument underpinning opposition to hunting: The argument against cruelty was always alloyed with misinformed class envy, party politics, and, worse, criminal mayhem. Nevertheless, though she ascribes more coherence to the antihunt lobby than it possesses, Blood Sport is not only a scholarly but an entertaining book, which covers enormous ground with deft succinctness. Professor of history at the University of East Anglia, Griffin is that rare thing: a talented scholar who is also a gifted writer.

Blood Sport opens with the Normans introducing their new vassals to a hunting technique that would permanently change British hunting: the par force hunt, which matched a small group of hunters against a single wild animal. The Normans usually hunted a deer or a boar, though the single animal changed over the centuries. In contrast to a drive hunt, where hunters drove their quarry to an ambush, the par force hunt pitted human skill against animal guile more sportingly by allowing the animal to dictate the chase. And since no one knew where the animal would lead, the chase became all the more exhilarating.

Griffin sees how this innovation continues to animate the present: "The pastime that grand landowners, pig-farmers, agricultural laborers and elderly ladies congregated in London to preserve in March 1998 may in fact be directly traced to the par force hunting introduced by the Norman nobility." The Countryside Alliance, forged to repel Labour's assault on country life, of which foxhunting is so central a part, has indeed immemorial roots.