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Town Mouse: The old South Bank show – bear-baiting. By Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Oct 23, 2023


As a mouse in the city, I have a mixture of pity and admiration for animals used for entertainment and spectacle.

In Shakespeare’s day, it was considered a great day out for all the family to watch bears, bulls and dogs goring each other to death in an arena.

Bear-baiting took place at one of a number of so-called gardens around today’s South Bank, just outside the walls of the city, and therefore outside its jurisdiction. According to historian Matthew Green, this was the most popular spectator sport in London.

In the case of bull-baiting, the crowds would see a bull tethered to a stake driven into the ground in the centre of the arena. The crowd, says Green, would start screaming ‘Go, bull. Go, dog!’

A volley of mastiffs would be released and crawl towards the bull, with the idea of grabbing its nose. The bull would get its horns under a dog and flip it into the air from where it might land on the shoulders of delighted spectators on the fourth-floor gallery. Other dogs might be gored to death by the bull, which would in turn be ripped to shreds by the dogs. The bull never survived.

Then came the turn of a grizzly bear to be tethered to a stake and attacked by dogs. The bears were never killed – they were valuable properties. The bear would instead kill the dogs by squeezing them to death.

Next up, it was the turn of a blind bear to be tormented. Swiss writer Thomas Platter, who visited London in 1599, said, ‘They brought in an old blind bear which the boys hit with sticks; but he knew how to untie his leash and ran back to his stall.’

Finally, a donkey was led in, with a monkey strapped to its back. The monkey had fireworks attached to it to send it into a frenzy. The fireworks went shooting into the crowd and the dogs attacked the donkey. Erasmus apparently called the show ‘funny’.

Elizabeth I never went to the Globe but she was an enthusiastic audience member at bear baitings. The bears were the lucky ones. They became celebrities.

Sackerson the Bear was mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and other notable bears included Harry Hunks, George Stone and Ned of Canterbury. They’d be paraded through the streets and cheered. People bet on them and wrote ballads about them.

The bear-baiting arenas were the direct inspiration for the playhouses, built on a similar plan, the wooden O. This led to a strange culture where people would go and see a Shakespeare play one afternoon and attend a bear-baiting the next day. Both entertainments cost a penny.

Everyone thought this was all great fun, with the exception of the Puritans, who carried on a campaign against both bear-baiting and the theatres.

They’d taken their lead from St Augustine, who complains in his Confessions about the barbaric gladiator games he witnessed in Carthage.

The Privy Council at first rejected the Puritans’ attempts to ban the practice. In 1583, they defended bear- and bull- baiting as ‘a sweet and comfortable recreation for the solace and comfort of a peaceable people’. In 1642, the Puritans finally managed to close theatres and, in 1656, the High Sheriff of Surrey, Thomas Pride, had the remaining bears of London shot.

This marked the end of it during the Commonwealth but, after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, a new arena was built in 1662 and bear-baiting continued.

It was the government of William IV that finally put its foot down. Bear-baiting was made illegal in 1835 in an Act ‘relating to the cruel and improper Treatment of Animals’.

This made ‘Persons keeping Pits for fighting Dogs or baiting Bears, &c. guilty of a Nuisance, and liable to Penalties’.

Of course animals still take part in city spectacles. Over the summer, I went to see the Palio, the crazy horse race in the central square of the medieval city state of Siena.

Ten horses, each representing a different district or ‘contrada’ of the city, race three times round the square. With 15,000 others, I stood in the 35-degree heat of the main square and waited two hours for the race to begin.

After half an hour of faffing about, the ten horses in the race were finally off and the crowd roared. Chaos ensued as riders crashed into walls and fell off their horses. The race was won by a riderless horse (it still counts), and the Oca (Goose) contrada celebrated that evening. All very medieval.

These riotous spectacles may act as a pressure valve and prevent more serious fighting. In today’s London, animal-based spectacles have been replaced by football, cricket and so on.

Still, I thank my lucky stars that no one has yet invented mouse-racing or mouse-baiting.