Falconry was a popular medieval sport practised widely by the nobility in European countries. Hunting with birds of prey took many forms in the medieval times and different birds were used for this purpose. When such hunting was carried out specifically with falcons, it was called falconry.
By High Middle Ages, falconry was an immensely popular sport and many European monarchs regularly indulged in it. During this period, falcons were even used as peace offerings, as highly treasured ransom and as invaluable gift.
In medieval Europe, the sport of falconry reached its pinnacle between 500 and 1000 A.D. While it originally began as a necessity to help hunt for food, it soon became a kind of status symbol among the medieval nobility. The sport was also common among the medieval European clergy, with Pope Leo X being particularly fond of hunting with falcons.
The earliest recorded falconer in England was Ethelbert II in the 8th century and from his reign onwards, despite the change of dynasties, falconry remained immensely popular in England. The sport remained equally popular in medieval Europe from the 10th century onwards but began to decline in the 17th century with the availability of the shotgun which could be used to hunt birds.
Falcons as Gifts and Ransom
Medieval monarchs put a premium on a valuable falcon and treasured it more than gold. During the medieval Crusades, the Muslim and Christian monarchs often traded with falcons when negotiating peace. A notable example of this was the 14th century trade for ransom of the Duke of Burgundy, the son of Philip the Bold. Caught by the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid, a ransom of 200,000 gold ducats was offered to the Sultan for him. The Sultan turned it down and instead sought and was given twelve white gyrfalcons. Similarly, 3 white gyrfalcons and 8 gray gyrfalcons were sent by Norway to England when forging peace between the two in the 13th century.
Falconry in England
English society was particularly notable in the medieval ages for its fervour for the sport of falconry. It came to be used in the Saxon England sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries. English monarchs always owned a wide variety of falcons and were traditionally presented with a falcon at the time of coronation.
The office of the Master of the Mews was also created in medieval England essentially to look after the falcons of the King. During the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English, the English nobles frequently carried their falcons to France. And Edward III had 30 falcons with him at the time of the invasion of France. The falcons were equally common among the English clergy and the ladies. In fact, so common were trained falcons among them that the clergymen and sometimes nuns could be seen carrying falcons on their wrists inside the chapels.
With the widespread use of shotgun in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became possible to hunt birds with it. As a result, the use of falcons decline rapidly and it became a status symbol to own gunpowder weapons instead.