What is a Vervel?
An eagle for an Emperor, a gyrfalcon for a King,
a peregrine for a prince, a saker for a knight,
a Merlin for a Lady, a goshawk for a yeoman,
a sparrowhawk for a priest, a musket for a holy water clerk,
a kestrel for a knave.
(The Boke of St Albans, c. 1486)
Hawking or falconry is the pursuit and capture of birds and small mammals by trained birds of prey. I first came across the sport in a book entitled A Kestrel for a Knave (Kes) by Northern writer Barry Hines. I’m assuming that the Boke of St. Albans inspired his title. As the extract suggests, hawking wasn’t the sole preserve of the nobility, but was also accessible to those lower down on the social scale. Labourers used hawks to hunt for food, often illegally.
Hawking rings or ‘vervels’ are rare detectorist finds. They were once attached to the leg of a bird of prey as a mark of ownership and those made of silver help in illustrating the development of hawking as an aristocratic pastime in the 17th century. A modern analogy would be a pigeon ring that bears details relating to the owner. If a bird was lost whilst hunting, then it could be identified by the vervel and thus returned to the owner. The tags were often inscribed with the owner’s name, residence or coat of arms – the latter was especially useful as not all the locals would be able to read.
Hawking was reputedly the favourite sport of every King of England from Alfred the Great to George III except for James I who spent much of his time training cormorants and ospreys to catch fish. King John’s passion was for crane hawking and he often brought hunting parties to the Test Valley to fly falcons at herons. The herons were ringed before they were re-released and information about their numbers and locations are documented in the Domesday Book.
A Remarkable Find
Detectorist Frank Taylor recently took along one of his finds to Peter Reavill, Finds liaison Officer for Hertfordshire and Shropshire, who identified the artefact as a vervel. Peter says: Although small, this hoop and shield are inscribed with the name IOHN TALBOT (John Talbot) and the emblazoned with a hound or ‘talbot passant’ which was the family crest of the Earls of Shrewsbury. The design and style of the lettering suggests that the owner was probably Sir John Talbot, 10th Earl of Shrewsbury (1601-54).
Sir John Talbot inherited the title, Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1630, a title somewhat disgraced by the family’s connections with Catholicism and involvement with the Gunpowder Plot. The family owned a significant estate at Pepperhill, Albrighton, not far from the field where Frank made his discovery.
Steve Charmley, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet member for culture and leisure, said: Frank Taylor has been very supportive of the museum service for over thirty years and has, with the agreement of the landowners, donated many of his finds. Working with responsible metal detectorists like Frank helps us to research and display fascinating insights into Shropshire’s past. It is crucial to our work.
At the moment museum staff are working to develop the 17th century displays for the new Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, which is due to open in 2012. Hopefully, the vervel will be displayed there as part of the story of Shropshire during this period.
Emma-Kate Lanyon, Curator with Shropshire Council’s museums service, said: The discovery of this example in a field in the adjacent parish to the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury fits well with a loss whilst out enjoying the hunt, and gives us a glimpse into the life of a family which has been at the heart of political affairs in the county from medieval times.
From the United Kingdom Detector Finds Database (UKDFD) I bring you another two examples of the hawking vervel. The first was found by Patrick Thorn. Again, it is silver and a very fine example inscribed around the outer face with the owner’s name, ‘Richa. Hardres Esqr.’
Richard Hardres, Knight and Baronet of Hardres Court, Upper Hardres, was born near Canterbury on the 23 April 1606 and died on the 25 October 1669.
The second silver example (below) was found by Simon Hall in Northamptonshire and is also dated circa 17th century. A plain silver ring is attached to a shield-shaped plate engraved with a knot motif and the inscription IS. The letters are probably the owner’s initials and the knot a heraldic badge of his family.
Falconry in the English language
As Falconry has been around in the UK for nearly 2,000 years, words and phrases that falconers use for their birds have crept into everyday language.
- FED UP – a hawk is termed fed up when it has a full crop (storage pouch) and therefore would not be interested in food or flying
- MANTLE - to cover or shield the food by dropping their wings over. The cover over a fireplace is now called a mantlepiece.
- CADGE – A wooden frame that falcons were traditionally carried out into the hunting field on. The person carrying the cadge became known as the cadger. At the end of the day the he would go to the local tavern and recount the tales of how the birds had flown and in turn expect money. To cadge, now means to scrounge or beg for.
- HOODWINK – to cover the bird’s eyes to keep it calm and relaxed. It now means to fool someone into doing something.
- MEWS – Nowadays this is something cottages or street names are called. A real mews is the home to hawks and falcons, the Royal Mews in London was set up to house the monarch’s birds. The name comes from the French word ‘muer’ which means to moult. In James I’s reign the Royal Mews stood where the National Gallery stands today and extended across Trafalgar Square down Whitehall. Many stately homes also have a mews associated with them.
Today anyone can practice falconry in the UK and no licence is required although only captive-bred birds can be used. Despite pressure to have falconry banned it has been allowed to carry on albeit with a number of conditions attached. Birds must be ringed and government registered.
BBC News, 25 August 2013, on the finding of a vervel by a detectorist – link to this blog post
A “rare” 16th Century “royal” silver vervel found in a Norfolk field has revealed the hunting habits of Charles Brandon, the first duke of Suffolk. The 23mm (0.9in) ring, found in December, was worn by a bird of prey around its foot to identify its owner …
The Wild Art of Falconry
© JW – This blogpost has been adapted from an article first published in The Searcher magazine. My thanks to the finders, PAS and the UKDFD for their help and co-operation.