A-Hunting We Will Go: The Historic Heraldry and Spiritual Symbolism of the Hunt



What a fine hunting day and balmy as May

And the hounds to the village will come

Every friend will be there and all trouble and care

Will be left far behind us at home.

See servants and steeds on their way

And sportsmen their scarlet display

Let’s join the glad throng and go laughing along

And we’ll all go a-hunting today.

(Anon. English folk-song)


     Although falling out of fashion in today’s society, hunting has had a long and prestigious history of pageantry and spiritual significance. Indeed, in days of yore, it was deemed a matter of necessity. It should be remembered that world of our ancestors was not the safe place we think of today. Let us go back in memory to Europe in the time of the Merovingian Kings for a bird’s eye view of the lay of the land.

     The barbarian invasions had settled down, and whatever traces of paganry remained were slowly being worked upon. The small towns, villages, and forts linked by dirt tracks across the face of Christendom were islands of light in a sea of wooded darkness, and a squirrel leaping from bough to branch could travel from Brittany to the Urals. Nor were these the woods we think of today, with their smaller green trees creating a pleasant shade over maintained forest paths; no, these were veritable temperate jungles. Perhaps only one tract of this sort remains today: the Bialowiecza Forest straddling the border of Poland and Belarus. One modern writer has recorded his impressions thereof:

      My eyes had to adjust to the gloom under the dense canopy of the trees. My skin registered the drop in temperature and the increase in humidity. (In summer, humidity inside the forest may reach 100 per cent.) My nose picked up the rank, dank vegetable odour of leaf mould, humus, bog water and decaying wood. In that silent place my ears registered every sound, so that even the minutest noise seemed magnified: a pine cone fell on the soft forest floor with a thud like a hammer blow, a maple leaf fluttered down among the branches with a clatter like broken crockery, the mad cackle of a jay and the rattle of a woodpecker echoed and re-echoed between the myriad noise-reflecting surfaces of the tree-trunks like the uproar of a blasphemous congregation in a cathedral.  

      But it was on my innermost sense that the forest made the strongest impression. It seemed to me that in the Bialowiecza Forest one was confronted with a kind of mirror image of the inner recesses of the human mind; and in the continuous cycle of growth, death, decay and regeneration that I saw all around, I was painfully reminded of our own mortality, and of the biochemical function we would each have to perform sooner or later when we give back to the common pool the cells of which we, like all other living things, are composed. 

(Douglas Botting, Wilderness Europe, p. 85). 

     In days of old, there were fearful inhabitants in forests of this kind. Most fearsome of all, perhaps, was the aurochs, or wild bull. Ancestor of our modern cattle, it was a large black animal standing six feet at the shoulder with spreading, forwardly curved horns. Just as fearsome was the European bison, forest-dwelling cousin of our own American buffalo. Somewhat resembling our version, it too could be found throughout the European forest. Much smaller but nastier in disposition was the wild boar; hunted with spear, it had a cunning lacking in the large bovines. The great hulking brown bear was smarter yet. There were the moose, which Europeans call elk; the red deer, the roe deer, and the fallow deer. Lesser game were present also; the genet, the marten, the fox, the otter, the badger, hare rabbit, and squirrel. Nor were beasts of prey absent either—the lynx and wild cat prowled. But perhaps dominant in our ancestor’s minds was the wolf. As Fr. Montague Summers writes: 

     For long centuries throughout all Europe there was no wilder brute, no more dreaded enemy of man than the savage wolf, whose ferocity was a quick and lively menace to the countryside such as perhaps we cannot in these latter days by any stretch of the imagination even faintly realize and apprehend. Whilst yet large tracts of every country, steppes and moorland, sierra and wold, upland, fell and plain, were utterly deserted and only trodden by man with peril and mortal danger to himself, the wolf proved a fearful foe.

     He dwelt in those formidable forests which long continued his veritable strongholds, fortresses from which he could not be dislodged, Riddlesdale and Bowland, Sherwood and Bere and Irwell in England; Ettrick, Braemar, Rothiemurchus, Invercauld in Scotland; in Ireland Kilmallock, the wilds of Kerry, the Wicklow mountains, Shillela [from which latter place originated the famous Irish walking-stick]; in France, Fontainebleau, Vincennes, the thick-hedged slopes of the Jura and Vosges; in Germany and central Europe the Schwarzwald, the Ahmerwald, the Wald-Viertel, and many more. Monarchs hunted him, and legislated and offered rich rewards for his destruction. But for many a hundred years and a hundred years again did the wolf defy all attempts at extirpation

 (The Werewolf, p. 22). 

     But other, less easily dealt with animals dwelt also in the forest, as our ancestors believed; the unicorn, for one, and the dragon. Moreover the fairies and rather more unpleasant characters in the way of goblins and demons could be found there also. While holy hermits might take up their residence in the forest’s depths, so too might robbers—and not always benevolent ones like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, all under the merry greenwood tree, either. There too was the mysterious Green Man, a half-human, half supernatural figure analogous in European folklore to the North American Indian Sasquatch or Bigfoot, and the Tibetan Yeti. So it is not too surprizing that in the days of Clovis, everyone was allowed to hunt and to clear what forest he could, regardless of station.

     The Kings and nobility, however, had a special responsibility to defend the peasants not only from invaders, but also whatever evil lurked in the woods. Still, the forest and its denizens were not merely fearsome, they were also valuable resources. Hunting was as good a practice for warfare as was tourneying; moreover, the opponent was not human. As they shrank, forests were set aside for Royal and noble use. Bialowiecza Forest, eventually the last refuge of the European bison, and Jaktozowka Forest, which similarly served for the aurochs (less successfully; the last one died in 1627, although German geneticists have “bred back” animals at least similar in appearance and habits—if one could derive modern cattle from the old animal, could not the reverse be done?) were so reserved to the Polish Kings.

     The French Monarchs created a whole administration, the Eaux et Forts (waters and forests) to cover the network of forests around the Kingdom: such forests as Fontainebleau, Vincennes, Villers-Cotterêts, Retz, and St. Germain were monitored by a large team of foresters. The Louvre was built originally as a hunting box for the pursuit of wolves. In England, even more rigid forest and game laws were passed. As in France, a full civil service of foresters in varying ranks was appointed. Such well known English Forests as the New Forest, Epping Forest, the Forest of Dean, Sherwood Forest (home of Robin Hood) and Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden were all so set aside. The Holy Roman Emperor himself had a rather similar setup; among his domains was the grand and spacious Forest of the Ardennes. In all countries, small or dangerous game was permitted to commoners to hunt: fox, wildcat, badger, squirrel, hare, and sometimes rabbit or wolf. Landowners could (and were) granted hunting rights on their own land.

     This hunting was generally conducted on horseback with hounds—in a manner similar to that of fox-hunting as it developed later. Together the hunters would ride after their quarry, signalling to each other by means of horns—when the quarry was first sighted, and so on. Kings and nobles grew to love the sport; Elector John George II of Saxony (reigned 1656-80) was hereditary Lord High Master of the Chase for the Holy Roman Empire, and so loved hunting that he refused the crown of Bohemia because their stags were inferior in size to his own Saxon breed. He established the magnificent Hunt Museum remaining today in Dresden. In this he only emulated Bl. Charlemagne, first of the Holy Roman Emperors.

     In between fighting at the frontiers of Christendom, the great Emperor would gallop through the forests in pursuit of game. His city of Aix-la-Chappelle (Aachen) owes its origin to one of his hunting trips. Once while pursuing a stag across a stream, his horse immediately pulled his hoof out of the water and retreated. Examining the leg, Charlemagne found it scalded and the water hot; he built a chapel in the shape of a horseshoe on the spot. After he built his palace there, the city grew up around it. To this day the rotonda around the hot spring is in the shape of a horse shoe, reminding us of its origins.

     At another time, the Emperor was summoned one time to the Vosges mountains, where a bear was terrorizing the neighborhood. With his huntsmen and hounds, Charles pursued him, and the bear disabled many of the hunters and dogs. At last, Charles alone stood up to him, face to face on a hill-top, where the bear took the monarch in a crushing bear-hug. At last, Charles struck him with his dagger and flung the animal off the precipice. The witnesses cried out, “long live Charles the Great!,” which is one of the reasons why he was thereafter called Charlemagne. Although he was jealous indeed of his hunting rights, he allowed the monks of the Abbey of St. Denis to chase the stags who were overgrazing their woods, on the proviso that the venison would be fed to the postulants and novices, and the hides used to bind missals.

     His successor on the throne of France, many centuries later, St. Louis IX was just as great a huntsman. In Palestine during the crusades he hunted lions; while at home he allowed commoners to hunt, provided always that they give a haunch of any animal they killed to the lord of the place. From this comes the custom in Europe of giving the foot of the slain quarry to whomever leads the hunting party. Louis XV stopped on his way back from his Coronation in Rheims to chase the stag in Villers-Cotterêts before returning to Paris. The martyred Louis XVI was also particularly fond of hunting. Even such Popes as Pius II, Julius II, and Leo X were avid huntsmen, and it was permitted even to religious, so long as the animals pursued presented a threat either to people or crops.

     The chase helped develop the code of honor chivalry had bestowed on the high-born. If hunting for pleasure and not for food, the means at the hunter’s disposal must be limited so that the quarry might have a chance to escape; further, wounded animals ought not to be pained more than strictly necessary. Thus even today, it is considered against the code to shoot a sitting duck or wait for a game-animal to drink at a water hole. The hunting code yet demands that one track down and shoot a wounded animal, rather than leaving it to die in pain if pursuit should be inconvenient.

     Alongside this code grew up a hierarchy of each “hunt,” as a group of hunters, horses, and hounds were and are called. Master of Hounds, beaters-in, and so forth all developed particular roles; similarly, the hunt itself became ceremonial to a great degree, the coup de grace (stroke of grace) being given to the quarry with a ceremonial knife or short sword—designed to be swift and as painless as possible. From hunting has developed much of what we call gentlemanly behavior.

     It ought to be remembered, though, that for our ancestors in Catholic times, all aspects of life were symbolic of higher things; of these the chase was full. The horse and rider represented Christ; the horse corresponding to His humanity and the rider to His Divinity. The hounds were emblems of loyalty, and so a dog is often depicted at the feet of loyal wives’ and vassals’ effigies on their tombs. The white stag symbolized Christ, after Whom all must hunt in this life; moreover He protects the Catholic family, His spouse the Church and His children the faithful, even as the stag defends his does and fawns.

     Wolves, believed to derive strength from the light of Moon, stars, and lightening, might be seen again as a token of Christ, Who also is strengthened by light. But more often the wolf symbolized the forces of evil. So too was the wild boar called the symbol of Anti-Christ and evil. In those places where its chase was restricted to the King or the Princes of the Blood Royal, their victory over their prey was seen to symbolize the conquest of Satan by Christ the King. For this reason also, a boar’s head would be brought in with great solemnity and song to the high tables of universities, palaces, guilds, and manors at Christmas; Christ’s birth having vanquished sin, the boar’s head was as much a trophy as a Christmas dinner. The custom yet remains among certain English guilds, and Queen’s College, Oxford.

     What of the more marvelous if seldom seen quarry, unicorn and dragon? The unicorn was seen as symbolic of Christ in His calling to virginity (for it was said that he who would hunt one must have a virgin attract the beast). The horn too brought Christ to mind, symbolizing Our Lord’ s divine power: “But my horn [force] shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn” (Psalm 92:10). Just as the huntsmen who would pursue the unicorn must use a virgin as lure, those who would gain Christ must do so with the help of the Virgin with Whom He was pleased to dwell. Such a forest as legend-haunted Broceliande in Brittany, where a fairy maid had lured Merlin into captivity and a magic fountain gave powers unearthly to those who drank of its pure water, was often considered to the haunt of the unicorn.

     The dragon too was an emblem—of evil. Numerous saints had battled them, starting with St. George, peerless flower of Knighthood. But so too had less exalted knights; the last dragon killed in England, it was said, met its fate in St. Leonard’s Forest in 1416 (a couple of friends and I went on a dragon hunt of our own in that pleasant wood in 1992; none of the reptiles turned up, but a deer rushed out of a culvert, which for us was just as exciting!).

     In the realm of legend, hunting was as important a pursuit as anywhere else. The fairies were held, like humans, to have Kings and courts, which went in their turn on hunts and processions. These were often confused and confounded with the “Wild Hunt,” a phenomenon known to all of Christendom. The rush of fierce wind was seen as this particular eerie band’s passage, chasing some strange spirit animal. If any scoffer halloed them, he might be forced to join the others forever, or else be thrown some grisly trophy; in one tale, it was the man’s own infant.

     The chief huntsman’s identity varied considerably, and with it the activities of the pack. Some said it was Satan, others Death or Odin. But in many places an actual historical character was given the credit. In Germany’s Odenwald, it was a certain Count von Rodenstein; in the northern Black Forest a Countess von Eberstein did duty. Le Grand Veneur, the Great Huntsman, haunted the Forest of Fontainebleau; he once sighted by France’s King Henry II in an extremely frightening encounter. Gwyn ap Nudd coursed through the skies of Wales and the West of England; King Herla did the same in most of the rest of England, save around Windsor where Herne the Hunter held sway.

      There is a story told of a saintly Scottish Capuchin, one Fr. Lesly, that after he was buried on a hill much haunted by such a chase, it was heard never more—the folk around attributing this to the holy relics. But a Christian explanation of the wild hunt phenomena is given in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. Describing an incident in 1091 (he was writing in the 1130s), Orderic wrote of how a priest in Normandy had encountered a line of horsemen and women undergoing varying tortures administered by demons. Many were dead folk whom he recognized, some of good repute, others less so. Orderic concluded that riding with this hunt was a means of serving out one’s Purgatory.

     In parts of France and the Black Forest, however, the Wild Ride was called St. Hubert’s Hounds. During harvest season, and on his feast day (November 3), the Saint’s four horses, each without bit or bridle, and mounted by four knights in black armor with visors down might be heard as they galloped over the trees. Whatever the identity of his hounds, horses, and their dark riders, the Saint himself is well known as the patron of hunting. Devoted to the chase, he was pursuing a stag on Good Friday in the Ardennes, when between the animal’s horns appeared a crucifix from which spoke Our Lord, commanding him to give up the world and devote himself to God’s service:

     After the mysterious stag had revealed Christ to him, he became, from a hunter of wild animals, a hunter of souls; and merited to be called the apostle of Ardenne, whose forests had often echoed to the baying of his hounds. He became the disciple and successor of St. Lambert; and transferring from Maestricht both the relics of the holy martyr-bishop and the Episcopal See, he raised Liege from an obscure village to a great town. His blessed death took place on May 30, 727; and on November 3, 743, his precious remains were taken up for the first time, which led to the celebration of his feast on this day. In the following century, the Abbey of Andain was put in possession of the sacred deposit, and took from him the name of St. Hubert, as did likewise the town which sprang up around and soon became a centre for pilgrimages.

     Two orders of knighthood were established in honour of St. Hubert; the first perished with the fall of the Bourbons, its last chiefs; the other still exists, and the Kings of Bavaria are its Grand Masters [since their deposition in 1918, the head of the Bavarian Royal House  continued to preside over the order] (The Liturgical Year, vol. XV, “Time After Pentecost,” bk. VI, pp. 164-5). These two last were the most famous of a large number of knightly orders and brotherhoods of St. Hubert, who were popularly supposed to have the power to cure rabies. Although now long since a basilica, its abbey having been abolished, the splendid church of St. Hubert in the Belgian Ardennes remains the center of devotion to this patron of hunters, who does continue to guard against rabies through his intercession.

     St. Hubert’s day  was long considered the formal commencement of the hunting season in Catholic Europe. All the hunting hounds of the neighborhood were brought to church for his Mass, at the elevation of which the hunters, resplendent in their green or red hunting jackets, sounded their horns. At the end of the Mass, the priest would go down the aisle, and another note would be played, after which the dogs would rush out of the church into the yard. There the priest, having blessed special St. Hubert’s Bread, Water, and Salt, against rabies (with a formula found in the rituale) administered the same to the dogs. The huntsmen, parishioners, and hounds were then all blessed. It was traditional to offer to St. Hubert the first fruits of the hunt. In the Middle Ages, not only this feast but the Saint’s conversion, death, and translation of his relics were similarly marked by the various brotherhoods and orders, who maintained, as did the guilds of the day, their own special devotions and rites, emblematic colors, and so on.

     These Masses are still offered, most notably at the basilica. But in Brussels, the old church of Notre Dame de Sablon plays host to it, for all that this parish is in the middle of the capital. In France they are widespread—Gary Potter witnessed one at the Chateau d’Arthies in the Ile de France, and saw in its wonderful combination of the Faith and civilization a major reason for his eventual conversion; the Abbey of Chaalis near Chantilly plays host to a similar Mass. The Hubertus Messe’s continuation in Germany was attested to me by my friend Axel Mullers who attended once in his hometown of Duisburg. Here we have then a rite which unites all the diverse cultures of Christendom.

     The saint is still resorted to for cures of rabies. Bestowed upon him was a miraculous stole, woven by Our Lady herself. The cure is accomplished by inserting under the patients skin a thread of the same stole, preserved at the basilica of St. Hubert. No less an authority than Louis Pasteur prescribed this treatment in addition to less spiritual measures. At the basilica itself, the Brotherhood of St. Hubert maintains its headquarters. Its aim is to honor St. Hubert, and “to obtain, through his intercession, the removal of all scourges (particularly of rabies), the eradication of all sacrilege, and the conversion of sinners.”

     Admission to the Brotherhood is done by being inscribed in the register at the basilica; the rituale has a formula for this. Members are to pray often to St. Hubert and wear his medal; celebrate his feast by attending Mass, confessing, and receiving Communion; and make at least once in their lives the pilgrimage to St. Hubert. In return they receive the Saint’s special protection, participate in the merits of all the members of the Brotherhood, and may avail themselves of the Masses for all dead members said during the Octave of All Saints, the monthly Requiem said for all who have died in the month, and the many indulgences bestowed by the Pope. These include plenary indulgences on the day of entrance, at death, and on St. Hubert’s Day, and partial indulgences for other pious acts.

     Although the Catholic rituals surrounding the hunt managed to survive for a longer period of time on the continent, assisted by such notables as the Duke de Brissac (Master of the Fontainebleau hunt), the Reformation took away most of these in the British Isles. While much of the secular show of the chase lived on, with horns, red coats, and all, the religious element was gone. They forgot the fact that the stirrup-cup served as a reminder of the blessed wine once used as a sacramental at the hunt’s commencement. This change is particularly ironic in Ireland, which, while the vast majority remained Catholic, the tradition of the chase was maintained by the Protestant Anglo-Irish. This is the case also here in America, where formal hunting in such places as New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina slavishly follows the post-Reformation English style. Less formal hunting has even less connection with its roots in Christendom.

     Nevertheless, the spiritual symbolism behind the act of hunting remains poignant. In effect, the hunt is a thing Our Lord Jesus Christ practiced very well spiritually. He was required to carry the title of “hunter.” David, in the 18th Psalm, calls the Son of God hunter. St. Jerome said, in speaking of Him, “You illustrious and noble in the mountains, catching and hunting.” The chase makes men strong in resisting vices produced by idleness. Anything a man wishes to do, he must emulate the hunt in so doing. Besides which, the concept of the hunt carries with it a little bit of war. It is training for the moment when we ought to pass from “tallyho” to “Montjoi Saint-Denis” [war-cry of French soldiers under the King] (Wallerand de Saint Just, Chants de France et de Chrétienté, p. 48).

      Ortega y Gasset states that, “Like the hunter in the absolute outside of the countryside, the philosopher is the alert man in the absolute inside of ideas, which are also an unconquerable and dangerous jungle” (op. cit., p. 152). This is true in all else, whether it be a father who hunts for a living, or an artist who hunts for inspiration, or a writer who hunts for ideas, or a priest who hunts for souls.

     This element of the hunter in the masculine ethos can also been seen in the Divine. Traditionally, all humanity is to a degree feminine in the face of God, explaining the use of “she” indiscriminately by the old spiritual writers to refer to the soul. The soul is depicted here as His spouse, just as He is shown to be the font of all masculinity: Father, Son, King, Priest, Warrior, and Hunter. Whatever our minor quarries in this life, we are all His; and as Francis Thompson showed so well in “The Hound of Heaven”, He will take us if He can; if we will only let Him: 

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

In that hunt let us hope we are all run to earth.

By Charles  A. Coulombe

(To learn more information about and obtain other resources from Charles A. Coulombe, visit Tumblar House Publishing.)