Falconry, or the art of hunting using birds of prey, was a hugely popular sport among the wealthy and noble during the Tudor era. It continues even today, perpetuated by small but devoted groups of enthusiasts. A lot of the terms for the birds or the equipment used are the same as they were in sixteenth century English courts. For example, a sleeping bird is “jokin”, the leather thongs on the bird’s legs are “jesses”, the place where the birds are kept is called the “mews”, and bells are attached to the birds’ necks with “bewitts”.
Henry VIII, who was passionately fond of sports and hunting, loved hawking. The kind of raptor used to hunt with was socially codified by hierarchy, and as a king Henry would have been allowed to use a gyrfalcon (or ger falcon). Gyrfalcons are beautiful birds, and it must have been a joy to watch them hunt. It should be noted that only the females of the species were referred to as simply falcons. The males of the most impressive raptors are usually 1/3 smaller than the females and were therefore called tercel (sometimes spelled tiercel), which is Latin for “a third”. Interestingly, this is also where the Toyota Tercel got it’s name, since it was about 1/3 smaller than a Corolla.
A hawking glove that Henry used and one of the hoods that covered his hunting bird’s head can still be seen at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford:
His second wife, Anne Boleyn, was also an avid falconer. As a woman she would have owned merlin falcons (also spelled marlyon). She was so enamored of falcons that she incorporated the white falcon as part of her personal badge:
(Claire Ridgway’s book, The Anne Boleyn Collection, uses Anne’s badge on its front cover and Ms. Ridgeway helpfully explains the symbols behind the badge on her website for those who are interested.)
Part of hawking was riding hell for leather on horseback for miles across rough terrain in order to follow the raptors that were in pursuit of prey. Nobles, including Henry and Anne, had to be absolutely magnificent riders to chase falcons. Henry, loathing to be parted from Anne, even had a saddle especially made so she could ride pinion behind him while hunting. Their daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was less enthusiastic about falconry than her royal parents but still had royal mews at her disposal.
By the 1700’s interest in hawking was waning, as guns and enclosed grounds made it less practicable. However, the imagery and symbolism of this sport continue in the modern lexicon, including the idea of having someone “under your thumb” or “wrapped around your little finger”—both of which are a reference to holding on to a raptor’s jesses.