The Poaching Priors of Blythburgh
In 1425, Thomas Sherman of Blythburgh, described in court as a poaching canon, was accused of taking the Lord of the Manor’s rabbits. His fellow canons were regular visitors to the Westwood warren. In 1442 no fewer than three of them were in the manorial court, having been caught in the act with their specially reared greyhounds. Indeed, it was recorded that the operation had the express knowledge of the prior himself.
The canons favoured greyhounds. Other poachers preferred lurchers (greyhound/collie crosses) better suited to working rough heathland. Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick (caught in 1448) set traps, while for many ferreting was popular. One Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business leasing out his well-trained animals to other poachers.
It is easily forgotten that the rabbit, a modern pest, was a valuable contributor to the medieval rural economy. The right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren (warren being used in a legal sense, not to describe a land feature). Introduced in the twelfth century by the Normans – one of the earliest archaeological records is from the Buttermarket in Ipswich – it was kept in warrens for meat and fur. Until the eighteenth century coney was the common name for the adult and the term rabbit was reserved for the young, or kitten. Natives of Iberia, they began as relatively delicate creatures, needing artificial breeding chambers, and extra food during the winter. Some escaped but they were rare outside warrens until the eighteenth century, although as their numbers increased the lord’s rabbits could play havoc with his tenants’ crops. Changes in farming practice solved the rabbit’s problem of how to get through the winter. Winter crops were planted for animal fodder, and natural predators were eliminated to protect game birds. In the nineteenth century the growth in rabbit numbers was phenomenal.
Rabbit production in Blythburgh, where sheep and rabbits grazed together at Westwood, was small scale in comparison with the great warrens of Breckland Suffolk and Norfolk: the perimeter of Thetford warren extended to eight miles at one stage. Crops such as sow thistles, dandelions, groundsel, and parsley were planted in the warrens for the rabbit?s benefit but imported food was usually needed in the breeding season, in bad weather, and during the winter. The Thetford rabbits would get through 80 acres of turnips in a severe winter. In the 1460s about 1,000 rabbits were killed each year in Blythburgh. Of some 1,500 in 1464–5, 100 went to the prior (hopefully keeping his canons away from the warren), 58 to the warrener, the manor household ate 250, 286 were given away, and 800 sold in London for £17 17s. 0d.
Poaching was such a lucrative business in the fifteenth century that organized gangs were at work. A pre–emptive strike by court officials on the Walberswick base of one east Suffolk gang revealed lurchers in the houses of four men, and ferrets and a net in one of them. The Walberswick men were less ferociously equipped than counterparts of the 1440s in Thetford, who boasted soldiers tunics, steel helmets, and bows and arrows.
A rabbit can live for 8–9 years but few in the wild get beyond their second year and three–quarters die in the first three months. More males than females die. But the species has been amazingly resilient in the face of adversity. Commercial warrening ended when foreign competition caused the prices of meat and fur to collapse in the late nineteenth century. Rabbit was no longer the luxury food it had been in the middle ages. But the rabbit had already demonstrated, against all nineteenth-century predictions, its capacity to survive in the wild. It also recovered from almost complete elimination by myxomatosis in the 1950s. When a wild rabbit was caught by a fifteen year old’s dog on an allotment in Great Glemham in 1956, it was brought for identification to an elder of the parish, who noted ‘things are soon forgotten and the next generation will never know the pleasure of seeing this creature and its many pretty ways’. Forty-five years on, the beleaguered Blythburgh gardener can only think, if only!
John Sheail, Rabbits and their History (Newton Abbot, 1971);
Mark Bailey, "The Rabbit and the Medieval East Anglian Economy", Agricultural History Review, 36 (1988) pp. 1-20.
Alan Mackley, Blythburgh, June 1999
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