Regulating the Working Dog in Medieval England

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 9 May 2023.        

“Comfort dogs” are proliferating in the US. It is not uncommon now to see these working dogs employed at schools, universities, churches, hospitals, police departments. They even appear in the occasional courthouse to keep witnesses calm before testifying. Of course, they are not exceptional in their training or expertise; they are merely joining the ranks of other working dogs, who lead the blind or alert their owners to impending seizures, guard properties, chase down criminals, sniff out drugs, engage in search-and-rescue, race other dogs, and herd sheep or cattle. Similarly, dogs in the medieval era fulfilled a great variety of essential jobs. They, too, herded sheep and cattle, guided the blind, and defended properties. Indeed, the mastiffs who guarded London Bridge earned up to 10d. a week for their efforts![1] Dogs also worked in ways that we wouldn’t expect, turning spits to rotate meat over a fire, or baiting bulls, a spectator sport that was also a necessary part of the process of preparing meat for sale, as there was a strong conviction that “the flesh of bulls that had not been baited with dogs was unfit for human consumption.”[2]

Dogs in medieval England were primarily working dogs, not pets. In particular, because of their popular association with deer hunting, a sport reserved exclusively to the king and to those among the nobility graced with a royal license, the ownership and behavior of dogs were both highly regulated. As far back as the time of King Cnut (r. 1016-35), commoners were prohibited from owning greyhounds.[3] Nor was this simply idle legislation: it was regularly enforced. For example, in 1209, Roger Wandard of Northamptonshire was fined for owning a greyhound contrary to the assize. [4] The ban was subject to further clarification in 1390 under King Richard II, when parliament declared that no layman with lands or tenements with an annual value less than 40s., or cleric with a benefice of annual value less than £10, might own or keep a greyhound. While the legislation justified the enlargement of the prohibition on the grounds that lesser persons were spending their Sundays hunting at parks and warrens when they should be “at Church, hearing Divine Service,” the underlying objective was to maintain a strict divide between the landed nobility and the rising middle class.[5]  

While they did not have “leash laws,” per se, municipalities were keen to put restrictions on the free movement of dogs within the city. Responding to the “great injury and contentions” that resulted from dogs wandering without supervision, the city of Norwich issued a proclamation in 1354 requiring that dogs be kept tied up or within an enclosure. Dogs found vagrant in the streets might be killed on sight, providing they were not greyhounds, spaniels or kennets (that is, hunting dogs), or dogs used for sport.[6] London made a similar proclamation in 1386, specifying that only the dogs of the gentry might walk freely, although the punishment for allowing one’s dog to wander was a fine of 40d.[7] The conditions attached to both pieces of legislation remind us that “strict contemporary social hierarchy… affected dogs as much as people.”[8] Greyhounds, which hunt silently by sight, were by far the most prized, although other hunting dogs – mastiffs (to hunt boar), alaunts (deer), running hounds (fox), terriers (rat, squirrel, fox, badger), harriers (hare), kennets (hart), and spaniels (hawk) – stood head and shoulders above lap dogs and curs in the medieval mentality.

The most restrictive laws, however, applied to hunting dogs residing within those lands designated as royal forest. Despite the nomenclature, “forest” did not necessarily imply wooded land; it included also meadows, pastureland, wetlands, and even small villages. In a process that Simon Schama has called “sylvan gangsterism,” England’s Norman kings allocated up to a third of the kingdom of England as the royal forest – for a while during the twelfth century, the entire county of Essex fell within its boundaries! – in which only the king had the right to hunt.[9] Those who lived within the forest, or close by, were subject to forest law. For those who owned hunting dogs, that meant expeditation, also known as lawing or hambling, a surgical procedure intended to prevent dogs from moving swiftly and thus incapacitating them as hunting dogs. During Cnut’s time, this expectation applied only to greyhounds, and the procedure itself was extreme: the term used in his “Constitutions of the Forest” is genuiscissione, that is hamstringing. Those who owned unhambled dogs must live at least 10 miles from the forest or pay a fine of one shilling per mile (an exorbitant amount for the time).[10]  

No one but the king seems to have been content with this law. Even the Leges Henrici Primi (“The Laws of Henry the First,” c. 1108) refers to it as a “wretched practice.”[11] The 1217 Charter of the Forest, a companion piece to the better known Magna Carta, was designed to repair some of the “earlier injustices of overzealous expeditation of dogs.”[12] Henceforth, all dogs (not just greyhounds) living within the forest were to be checked for hambling every three years at a court of Regard by a jury of “lawful men.” Those whose dogs were found unhambled were to be fined 3s. only – moving forward, no oxen were to be confiscated as punishment. Moreover, expeditation could only be required in those areas of England where it had been carried out during the time of King Henry I. Finally, the charter spelled out the precise manner in which a dog should be hambled: “three claws of the fore foot shall be cut off [by the skin.]”[13]

While certainly less cruel than hamstringing, the expectation to “declaw” one’s dog does not seem like a major improvement. Did most owners living within the bounds of the forest have their dogs hambled? For those who had invested in hunting dogs, seemingly it was worth paying the fine (called “houndsilver”) every three years rather than losing one’s investment. Some owners took this approach. For example, at the Cheshire forest eyre of 1357, thirty individuals residing within Macclesfield Forest chose to pay fines rather than subject their dogs to expeditation.[14] In this respect, one might see the fine as a licensing fee of sorts, owed to the state for owning a dog within the forest. Admittedly, it was in the king’s best interests for residents to adopt this approach, as the revenue generated from fines and amercements relating to violations of the forest charter were impressive. Between 1207 and 1212, total forest revenue amounted to £11,500 (although only a small portion of this total came from unhambled dogs).[15]

Those who were particularly keen to avoid lawing their dogs might apply to the crown for an exemption. The close rolls contain a number of examples, although the crown kept a tight leash on the number of exemptions granted at a time.[16] A letter to Guncelin de Badelesmere, justice of Chester, makes clear that only one lord from each town may be acquitted of lawing his dogs. If “there be more than one or two lords in any town there, then the dogs of the lords and of each man of those towns should be lawed, except the dogs of the principal lord of the town.”[17] Revenue was clearly the driving force behind this decision.

Profits also drove foresters to exploit the provisions of the law. At times, they tried to collect fines in spite of an exemption. The residents of the Chase of Knaresborough complained to the king of this in 1305. Living in a “free chase,” they were not required by law to hamble their dogs, and yet Miles of Stapelton, the steward of Knaresborough, tried to fine them anyways.[18] Upping the frequency with which they hosted a view of dogs was another popular tactic. Grievances voiced against the Forest Charter at the Somerset eyre of 1278/9 explain that foresters amerced inhabitants for owning unhambled dogs every year rather than every three years, as the charter stipulated. Those who tried to hide their dogs in an effort to escape this abuse were foiled, as the foresters came through town “blowing horns … to cause the mastiffs to come out to bark at them.” Even worse, they hambled the dogs not just by removing the three claws of the forefoot, but also “a little piece from the ball of the right foot,” which residents knew to be excessive.[19]

Hugh of Evesham, riding forester for all of Cannock Chase, the royal forest in Staffordshire, apparently concocted an impressive number of strategies for abusing the forest law: extorting money for passage through the woods, driving pigs into the forest so that their owners would have to pay pannage; and fining dog-owners for improper expeditation. The complaint against him stated that he had “extorted a great sum of money from the men of the bailiwick unjustly, not being content with any mode of expeditation, saying, if the right leg was expeditated the left leg ought to be expeditated, and vice versa, and if all the feet were expeditated, saying falsely that this was against the assize and the tenor of the King’s charter.” [20]

The legal records do not give us any indication whether dog-owners disparaged regulations for hambling their dogs because they saw them as cruel, or because they wanted to hunt illegally. Nonetheless, the image that opens this discussion, drawn from the Livre de Chasse, a fourteenth-century hunting manual, makes it clear that dogs, especially working ones, were cared for and valued in medieval society.


Livre de Chasse, French Hunting Dog Book. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

“Gray-Hound” in a 1658 English woodcut.” Wikipedia. Public Domain.

“Hart-hunting with greyhounds and raches,” from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus (“The Hunting Book of Gaston Phebus”). Wikipedia. Public Domain.


[1] London Bridge: Selected Accounts and Rentals, 1381-1528, ed. Vanessa Harding and Laura Wright (London Record Society, vol. 31, 1995), xiv, no. 487.

[2] Carole Rawcliffe, “Town Tykes and Butchers’ Hounds,” Medieval Prosopography 33 (2018), 52.

[3] “Constitutiones de Foresta,” in Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ed. Benjamin Thorpe (London: G.E. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1840), 429, no. 31.

[4] Select Pleas of the Forest, ed. G.J. Turner (Selden Society, vol. 13, 1899), 5.

[5] 13 Ric. II, Stat. 1, c. 13; Statutes of the Realm, vol. 2, 65.

[6] The Records of the City of Norwich, ed. William Hudson and John Cottingham Tingley, 2 vols. (Norwich: Jarrod and Sons, 1910), vol. 2, 206-7.

[7] Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: H, 1375-1399, ed. Reginald R. Sharpe (London: John Edward Francis, 1907), 311.

[8] Rawcliffe, “Town Tykes and Butchers’ Hounds,” 46.

[9] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995), 148.

[10] “Constitutiones de Foresta,” 429, no. 31.

[11] Leges Henrici Primi, ed. L.J. Downer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), c. 17 at 121.

[12] Sarah Harlan-Haughey, “Forest Law through the Looking Glass: Distortions of the Forest Charter in the Outlaw Fiction of Late Medieval England,” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 25.2 ( 2016-2017), 566-567.

[13] “Charter of the Forest,” A Treasury of Primary Documents,, ch. 6; 25 Edw I, Charter of the Forest, chapter 6; Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, p. 120; reprinted 27 Edw I, Stat. de Finibus, Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, p. 127.

[14] The National Archives [hereafter TNA], CHES 33/6, m. 37d; see Jane Winters, “The Forest Eyre, 1154-1368,” (PhD Dissertation, King’s College London, 1999), 417.

[15] Winters, “The Forest Eyre,” 16.

[16] A 1291 letter to Roger LeStrange, justice of the Forest this side of the Trent, records an exemption from lawing of dogs for the Abbess of Romney and her tenants. See CCR, Edward I, vol. 3, 178.

[17] CCR, Edward I, vol. 1, 215. 

[18] TNA SC 8/264/13184.

[19] Select Pleas of the Forest,126.

[20] Staffordshire Historical Collections, Vol. 5 Part 1, ed. G. Wrottesley (London: Harrison and Sons, 1884), 151.

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