Hunting season is just gearing up here in Maine. Already a few families have caught their moose, which will fill their freezers for the winter. During the Regency era in England, hunting had become the sport of gentlemen, although it wasn’t limited to the aristocratic class. But if you didn’t own land where game could thrive, you depended on permission of the landowner. Poaching was illegal and with punishment if caught of transportation to the penal colonies (i.e. Australia) for seven years (according to the Game Laws of 1816) or injury if you were caught in a “man-trap”. Prior to 1816, penalties were doubtless more severe. But we won’t dwell on that unpleasant topic today.
Back to hunting as a sport for the idle rich. Pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit were all “fair game”—pun intended. The official start of hunting season was August 12th “Glorious Twelfth” for red grouse in the north. It coincided with the recess of Parliament for the year, when the gentry flocked north—another pun—out of hot, dirty London for their country estates or those of their friends. The red grouse is a fowl native to Scotland and northern England so those lucky enough to have estates there could probably expect company during the month of August.
Fox hunting was probably the most popular hunting sport of the regency buck (young, all around sporting man of the ton participating in all the debaucheries available to him). Fox hunting gained popularity as the Enclosure Laws of the 1700s shut off more and more open land with stone walls and hedgerows, giving the landless class less space to grow food and the propertied class more area to protect the wild life for their own pleasure. What had begun a few centuries earlier as a defense of farmers against fox damaging their crops evolved into a very structured sport centered in the “Shire” of England, Leicestershire, in the heart of England, an area of rich, flat pastureland ideal for “riding to the hounds.” The town of Melton Mowbray became the center of fox hunting. Three major hunts, the Quorn, the Belvoir (pronounced “beaver”), and the Cottesmore were held here.
Fox hunting went from the beginning of November through March, after the fields had been harvested and would not be damaged by the horses and hounds running over them and ended before the first spring plantings.
If the hunting was good, men were reluctant to return to town, so women, arriving in London in March would complain over the dearth of men in the early part of the season.
Dog and horse breeds were gradually selected and improved for hunting: the foxhound breed perfected in the 17th and 18th centuries in England for foxhunting, and the Irish hunter becoming the preferred horse for its endurance. Dogs were first used in packs for hunting in the mid-17th century.
Fox hunting was a man’s sport until the 1830s when the jumping pommel was invented for female side saddles. Before this, if you read about a heroine being just as intrepid a rider alongside the hero in a hunt, she would risk falling off her horse and breaking her neck if she tried such a stunt—unless she rode astride—difficult before the invention of the split skirt in the later Victorian era. A few renown women like Catherine the Great did ride astride but wearing male attire (she also rode side saddle as you can see in the portrait). But being royalty she could get away with this unladylike behavior.
The jumping pommel sidesaddle had an extra pommel as can be seen in the photograph for the left leg to secured against, in addition to the original pommel for the right leg. Women’s riding habits had long hems on the left side so their ankles would be well covered when they sat atop their horses. This is why they had to drape these long skirts over their left arm when walking. With this new sidesaddle women could gallop and jump fences for the first time.
So until this invention, women had to be content to ride along the roads in carriages, ride sidesaddle on gentle mounts to the meet and then ride home again, or enjoy the sometimes elaborate picnics planned around a hunt.
Wikipedia and blogs: A Web of English History: The Age of George III; Jane Austen’s World; The Jane Austen Centre; Rakehell: Where Regency Lives!; The Word Wenches: Fox Hunting; Shannon Donnelly’s Fresh Ink: The Regency World Horse