Origins & Establishment of Tradition
Henry VII hunting in Epping Forest
From the time of William the Conqueror, forest law was imposed by royal prerogative. Its principal aim was to protect game for hunting. Forest laws applied to any type of land private or common, cultivated or forested within a designated area, which was set by officials who carried out a ‘perambulation’ to establish and fix forest boundaries. Anything inside the area was considered to be ‘afforested’ – therefore liable to forest law. Within afforested areas deer could freely roam. Commoners could forage for wood, berries and other edible plants, but only the King was allowed to hunt there. Around the year 1130 Epping Forest came under forest law and it was noit until 1226, under the reign of Henry III that citizens of London were first granted free warren or liberty to hunt one day annually in what became known as ‘the common hunt’. Epping Forest came under the jurisdiction of a Lord Warden, and quite often this role was held by the ruling monarch.
From ancient times the Manor of Wanstead acted as an important venue for royal use of Epping Forest. Wanested Hall, as it was then known, was an established hunting lodge by 1499, and was a much-loved retreat for Henry VII. This love of Wanstead was shared by the King’s son Henry, who became Henry VIII, and it was he who first enclosed Wanstead Park around 1512. As can be seen above, Epping Forest became a royal playground and this continued under Queen Elizabeth’s reign & well into the 17th century. Whilst royal hunting could go on at any time, the ‘common hunt’ quickly became associated with Easter Monday. It is assumed that this date was set partly because it was traditionally a holiday and also because Easter marked the first time of year when the forest was deemed dry enough to stage a decent stag hunt.
Up until the 1680s the Epping Hunt as treated as a solemn almost ceremonial occasion. The Lord Mayor of London presided over the hunt, which was attended by aldermen, landed gentry and aristocrats. A deer was taken to an area of flat land at either the Bald Faced Stag or The Roebuck and let out of its cart. Participating riders usually formed a circle around the cart allowing the stag just one exit route, which was often set towards the city to avoid getting lost deep into Essex countryside. Royal patronage over the event came to an end in the 1680s when Josiah Child (1630-1699) purchased Wanstead House. As Governor of the East India Company Child used his enormous wealth and influence to bribe Charles II into allowing him to seize and enclose a large portion of Epping Forest surrounding his new estate. One of the ‘gifts’ Child received in return for payments of up to £10,000 per annum into Charles’ back pocket, was the hereditary title of Lord Warden of Epping Forest. Thus for the first time a commoner was now charged with responsibility for the forest, and though he used this privilege to his own advantage – he also made steps to influence and improve traditions such as the Epping Hunt.
Child’s backhanders ensured Wanstead House controlled Epping’s forest and its Hunt
Josiah Child’s son Richard (1680-1750) became Lord Tylney in 1732, and is credited with formalising the Epping Hunt and making it into the occasion it became. As early as 1740 Lord Tylney took charge of events and thereafter the Lord Mayor of London became more of an honorary guest than organiser of the hunt. By this time the dignitaries set off from Whitechapel early in the morning in what evolved into the pre-hunt procession to ‘Buckets Hill’ (Buckhurst Hill as it is today).
The poet Tom D’Ursey, writing in 1719, encapsulated how Epping Hunt had become an established fixture in the sporting calendar
Once a year into Essex go, to see them pass along, O! tis a pretty show!
Old England newspaper reported in 1749:
At Wanstead in Essex yesterday Lord Tylney opened the hunt upon Epping Forest, where at least 70 coaches, most of them of six, assembled at the chace. The tents were pitched as usual by his Lordship’s direction, &c An elegant dinner was prepared for the ladies & in two of the largest tents, and a band of musick attended. The whole was concluded with a Ball Alfresco. The tees were decorated with flowers and illuminated in a circle round the area they danced in. The brilliancy of the ladies, who were very numerous, was the greatest ornament.
1749 proved to be a high watermark in the history of the Epping Hunt, because Lord Tylney died the following year. His son John, 2nd Lord Tylney, was a passionate advocate of Epping Forest, but not keen on hunting and seldom exercised his rights to organise the event. Tylney’s idea of sport was far more dangerous. Indeed his discovery in bed with a couple of manservants in the 1750s meant that Lord Tylney had to escape into exile to avoid criminal prosecution, and remained there until his death iun 1784
But so long as commoners enjoyed the right to hunt on Easter Monday, there were always going to be demand for the Epping Hunt to continue. Thus beckoned an era typified by ‘Cockney Nimrods’…