Friday, October 23, 2015

“by plain tooth and nail”: Bear-baiting in Elizabethan London

by Dean Hamilton

Visscher's Panorama of London, 1616

If you glance at the famous Visscher's Panorama of London from 1616, you will see, tucked into the foreground of the picture, on the south bank of the Thames to the left of London Bridge, a pair of octagonal buildings. These are the now famous Globe Theatre and its less-famous but almost equally popular neighbour, the Bear Garden, also known as the Paris Garden.

The Bear Garden was a bear-baiting ring.

Blood sports were popular with the Elizabethans. Bear-baiting stood alongside theatre as a choice entertainment spectacle, alongside other animal blood “sports” such as bull-baiting, badger-baiting, rat-pits and cock-fighting. All of these activities, to modern eyes, were inhumane, cruel and vicious bloodsports that inflicted pain and suffering on multitudes of animals, for the amusement of paid spectators. And yet, they were immensely popular.

Bear-baiting “performances” were held seven days a week, including Sundays, a fact that often raised the ire of the church and the London Aldermen. The bear-baiting ring consisted of a design not very different than that of the London theatres – an octagonal ring with tiered galleries, surrounding a fenced in “yard” or enclosure. Costs for entry was a penny for the bottom tier, two pennies for higher tiers. At the centre of the ring a bear, chained to a post, would be placed. Dogs, usually large English mastiffs, would be released into the yard to fight and attack the bear. The “performance” would continue until the bear was exhausted with fresh dogs replacing the spent, injured or dead ones. Bears were valuable investments for the impresarios operating the bear-baiting rings, so care was generally taken that the bears not be killed, although in no case was the treatment even remotely humane by modern standards. Teeth were filed short, to reduce injuries to the dogs. Blind bears were whipped to amuse the crowds.

Queen Elizabeth was quite taken with bear-baiting, staging it regularly at the enclosed tiltyard at the palace of Whitehall, most notably for the French Ambassador in May, 1559. The ambassador was so taken by the spectacle, he and his retinue promptly headed over to Southwark and the public bear-baiting the very next day.

Bear Baiting, Abraham Hondius 1650
The Earl of Leicester, hosting Elizabeth’s Summer Progress at Kenilworth Castle in July, 1575, brought in 13 bears and innumerable dogs to provide a bloody afternoon of “entertainment” for Elizabeth and her Court. By all accounts it was a rousing success with “fending & proving, with plucking and tugging, scratching and biting, by plain tooth and nail on one side and the other, such expense of blood and leather [skin] was there between them, as a months licking (I think) will not recover” (from Robert Laneham's Letter).

Londoners flocked to the rings and certain bears soon achieved a modest level of “fame”, accompanied by nicknames such as Harry Hunks, George Stone, Ned Whiting and Harry of Thame. The bear most familiar to modern audiences is Sackerson, who was highlighted in William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:
Slender: ….Why do your dogs bark so? be there bears i’ the town?
Anne: I think there are, sir; I heard them talked of.
Slender: I love the sport well; but I shall as soon quarrel at it as any man in England. You are afraid, if you see the bear loose, are you not?
Anne: Ay, indeed, sir.
Slender: That’s meat and drink to me, now: I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain; but, I warrant you, the women have so cried and shrieked at it, that it passed: but women, indeed, cannot abide ’em; they are very ill-favoured rough things.
It would be nice to think Shakespeare had the bears of Southward in mind when he penned one of his most famous stage directions “Exit, pursued by a bear” in A Winter’s Tale.

Aside from mentions in plays and the general shape of the performance venue, bear-baiting and the Elizabethan theatre crossed over in several areas. Philip Henslowe, who built and owned The Rose theatre (the third of the permanent playhouses erected in London, and the first in Bankside) also dabbled in bearbaiting from 1594 onwards. In 1604 Henslowe purchased the position of “Master of Her Majesty’s Game at Paris Garden” and in 1613-14, he and his partner tore down the Bear Garden and replaced it with the Hope Theatre, a dual purpose playhouse / animal-baiting venue, although it soon became used primarily for bear-baiting and never really lost it’s Bear Garden identity in the eyes of Londoners.

Bear-baiting and other animal blood sports continued as a spectacle both in London and across England (and a number of other European nations). Bear-baiting as entertainment was not without its detractors. The Puritans in particular were hostile to the entertainment, although they were equally hostile to almost all other types of recreation. Only a handful of commentators expressed revulsion at the activity. It was finally brought to a halt in London in 1655 under the munificent Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell
by Samuel Cooper
Cromwell’s appointed “Major-Generals” were instructed to “encourage and promote godliness and virtue” in their roles. As a result, Colonel Thomas Pride raided the Bear Garden at Bankside, personally killing all the bears and ordering his troops to wring the necks of the gamecocks across London. This was in addition to shuttering the theatres, closing ale houses and generally working to surpass “mirths and jollities” across the nation.

One prominent critic mused that the bear-baiting was ended by Cromwell, but not because of the vicious cruelties inflicted on the bears and the dogs, but rather because it gave to much pleasure to the spectators.

The ban on animal baiting of all types was a short-lived one, as it resumed with the Restoration. Samuel Pepys famously recorded a visit to the Bear Garden / Hope Theatre in 1666 deeming it "a rude and nasty pleasure." The last animal baiting recorded at the Bear Garden was in 1682. Bear-baiting, bull-baiting and other activities, though they waned in popularity in the 17th century, were finally ended and utterly banned in 1835 with the timely passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act.

The Bear Garden is commemorated now with a long narrow lane named for it, running towards Bankside and the Thames River, a block from the reconstructed Globe Theatre.

No bears are now in evidence.

Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, Liza Picard. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003
The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, Ian Mortimer, Touchstone Press, 2011
The Elizabethan Underworld, Gamini Salgado. Sutton Publishing, 2005
Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution, Peter Ackroyd. Thomas Dunne Books, 2014


Dean Hamilton was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He spent the first half of his childhood chasing around the prairies and western Canada before relocating to Toronto, Ontario. He has three degrees (BA, MA & MBA), reads an unhealthy amount of history, works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. Much of his winter is spent hanging around hockey arenas and shouting at referees.

He is married with a son, a dog, four cats and a turtle named Tortuga. The Jesuit Letter is his first novel of a planned series The Tyburn Folios.

Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree

The Jesuit Letter 
Ex-soldier turned play-actor Christopher Tyburn thought he had left bloodshed and violence behind him when he abandoned the war against the Spanish in Flanders, but fate has different and far bloodier plans waiting.
When Tyburn accidentally intercepts a coded latter from a hidden Jesuit priest in Warwickshire, he is entangled in a murderous and deadly conspiracy. Stalked by unknown enemies, he must race to uncover the conspiracy and hunt down the Jesuit to clear his name. . . or die a traitor's death. His only hope – an eleven-year old glover’s son named William Shakespeare.

Black Dog (novella)


  1. Interesting to remember that the phrase ''s like a bear garden in here...' is still in use - I remember it well from my school days when a teacher might enter a noisy class room!

  2. Interesting to remember that the phrase ''s like a bear garden in here...' is still in use - I remember it well from my school days when a teacher might enter a noisy class room!

  3. Very interesting how the Puritans banned the 'sport', which seems very humane to me until I read further that Pride had them all killed. For a moment, I thought I was one with the Puritans. Very relieved to find that I am not. :)

  4. I think the Puritans lived in the mortal fear that someone, somewhere, at some point, might possibly be enjoying themselves for a moment...

    1. Although some Puritans were what we might now term religious fundamentalists, other (notably Cromwell and John Milton, arguably the greatest poet writing in the English language) were liberals and free-thinkers. To judge them as miserable killjoys is not only incorrect, but also reading history backwards. Cromwell and Milton were the good guys, the Stuarts a succession of foolish, autocratic and reactionary individuals.
      As for Pride killing those bears - what was he supposed to do? Let them loose in central London? Let them roam around the countryside?


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