How to Train Your Hawk: A 15th Century English Prioress’ Guide

by Heather R. Darsie

This weekend when I was researching for my new book, anticipated in Summer 2021, I stumbled across a curious book from the 15th century. It is called, Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Heraldry. The book was printed in 1496 at Westminster by Wykyn de Worde, who also published an account of Anne Boleyn’s coronation. Even more interesting were the hand-written notes at the front of the book. One collection of notes stated that the book was printed at Westminster in 1496, and the person writing the note so did in 1802. The writer stated that the book was 306 years old. On another page, the author was identified as “Juliana Barnes, alias Berners,” and she was prioress of Sopwell Priory from about the year 1460 during the reign of Henry VI. Juliana is also the author of the Book of St. Albans, published in 1486. Further notes, in a different hand, created a table of contents for the book with the assurance that, “I have carefully collated this curious old book and find it perfect.” That note was left on 16 August 1736. A final inscription, written in Latin with ink and slightly faded, gives a date of 1460. It seems to give biographical information about Juliana. I found the first part of her book, about how to capture and train a hawk, fascinating.

The text begins with,

“Insomuch that gentlemen and honest persons have great delight in hawking and desire to have the manner to take hawks: and also how and in what wise they should guide them ordinarily and to know the gentle terms in [ac]companying their hawks, and to understand their sicknesses and infirmities, and also to know medicines for them according: and many notable terms that be used in hawking, both of their hawks and of the fowls that their hawks shall flee. Therefore this book following in a due form showeth [e]very knowledge of such pleasure to gentlemen and persons disposed to see it.”

Perhaps the most important part of hawking is coming into possession of a hawk. Juliana gives a description of the best time to capture a young hawk. She advises that hawks come from eggs, which are laid during the warmer part of the year. The best time to catch a young hawk, called a brancher, is,

“…after St. Margaret’s Day [20 July] they will flee from tree to tree. And then they be called branchers. And then it is time for to take them. And VII nights before Saint Margaret’s Day and VII nights after: is best taking of spare hawks.”

How does one take a hawk? Juliana recommends,

“Who so will take hawks must have nets which be called vrynes [sic]  and those must be made of good small thread. And it had need be dyed either green or blue for espying of the hawk.”

There is not any solid advice on how to actually take the hawk. After the hawk is captured, her eyes are supposed to be sown shut. Juliana explains,

“And he [the captor] must take with him needle and thread to ensile the hawks that be taken. And in this manner, they must be ensiled: Take the needle and thread and put it through the outer eyelid and so of that other, and make them fast under the beak that she see not and then she is ensiled as she ought to be.”

Juliana urges the captor to take care not to ensile the hawk through her inner eyelid, as it could injure the bird. The next step is to bring the hawk home, and begin to tame her. Juliana states that, after ensiling the bird,

“When she is ensiled bear her home on thy fist and cast her on a perch: and let her stand there a night and a day. And on the other day toward night, then take and cut easily the threads and take them away softly for [fear of] breaking of the eyelids.”

After removing the threads, Juliana says to begin feeding the hawk meat and behaving calmly around her, so she does not break her wings. Additionally,

” And then the same night after the feeding wake her all night and the morrow all day. Then she will be privy enough to be reclaimed. And the first meat she shall eat let it be hare and give her enough thereof.”

After that, Juliana describes the best foods for a hawk, and how to tell if the hawk is sick. A large portion of her treatise is dedicated to diagnosing illnesses which hawks experience and how to treat them.

Love learning about the Queens of England? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anne of Cleves told from the German perspective!

 UK Hardcover

 UK Kindle

US Hardcover

US Kindle

** Special thanks to the Newberry Library of Chicago for allowing me to view this book.


You Might also Like

  1. The Scythian Lamb, or the Delectable Lamb-Vegetable of Tartary
  2. The Curious Case of a Misidentified Portrait of Anne Boleyn
  3. A Brief Look at Jousting Armor
  4. Dashing through the Snow: Dangers of Alcohol Consumption in Reformation-Era Augsburg

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Barnes, Juliana. Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Heraldry. Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde (1496). Held by Newberry Library, Chicago [Inc. 9704].





9 thoughts on “How to Train Your Hawk: A 15th Century English Prioress’ Guide

  1. I love books and medieval history, so I am in love with this book! I wish I had seen it while writing my novel Finding Kate, in which I adapted “The Taming of the Shrew.” I set the action in 1485 and researched hunting hawks because of Shakespeare’s allusions to hawks in the play.

    Liked by 1 person

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment or drop me a line!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s