EPISODE 14: FOX
A fox once came to a meadow in which was a flock of fine fat geese, on which he smiled and said, "I come at the nick of time, you are sitting together quite beautifully, so that I can eat you up one after the other."
The geese cackled with terror, sprang up, and began to wail and beg piteously for their lives.
But the fox would listen to nothing, and said, "There is no mercy to be had! You must die."
At length one of them took heart and said, "If we poor geese are to yield up our vigorous young lives, show us the only possible favour and allow us one more prayer, that we may not die in our sins, and then we will place ourselves in a row, so that you can always pick yourself out the fattest."
"Yes," said the fox, "that is reasonable, and a pious request.
Pray away, I will wait till you are done."
Then the first began a good long prayer, for ever saying, "Ga! Ga!" and as she would make no end, the second did not wait until her turn came, but began also, "Ga! Ga!"
The third and fourth followed her, and soon they were all cackling together.
When they have done praying, the story shall be continued further, but at present they are still praying without stopping.
In many stories, the fox is painted as a greedy figure.
A mischievous villain who uses any means necessary to get what he wants.
Painting the fox in this way has specific benefits to man.
You see, foxes, especially the red ones, are extremely intelligent and adapt to situations in a moments notice.
Which is why, hunting them was considered such a skill.
Fox hunting has a long and tumultuous history.
It is believed that art of fox hunting originated in Norfolk, in the 1530s.
Farmers would use different tactics to flush out foxes from the forest and hedges that lined their farms and subsequently kill them.
It was a form of pest control that took a lot of precision and skill, due to the fox being such a worthy opponent.
Not only do foxes manage to evade humans quite well, adult foxes also have no natural animal predators in the British Isles.
A farmer could easily lose their livelihood due to an abundance of them.
Like most things born of necessity in the early modern period, fox hunting went from being essential, to something for sport.
The longest running Fox Hunt, the Bilsdale Hunt, began in 1668 by George Villiers, the then Duke of Buckinghamshire.
A modernised version of that hunt actually still runs today.
George Villiers was a favourite of King James, and most likely one of his lovers.
You will remember James from the Whip episode, he’s the guy that wrote instructions on how to torture and execute witches.
Nevertheless, this gave the Duke an advantage when it came to leisure and activity.
He was a highly esteemed patron of the arts, and as we know, people of privilege like to turn the realities of the working class (in this case hunting) into games and sports.
I couldn’t find enough information about the original rules to this hunt to say for certain how it was done then, but if the organisations are to be believed, it’s safe to assume that it was slightly different in Villiers time than today.
For one, they didn’t just hunt foxes. They also hunted deer, rabbits and other animals.
According to most Fox Hunting leagues, today’s modern style of the sport is the product of one man named Hugo Maynell.
Known as The Father of Fox Hunting, Hugo Maynell, was a wealthy landowner and one time member of parliament who rode with a group known as the Quorn Hunt.
Some accounts say he founded the group altogether in 1750, while others say it already existed and he became the leader.
As I am nowhere near an expert on the topic, I am going to say the truth lays somewhere in the middle.
What I mean by this is, His passion for the sport undoubtedly popularised it.
Couple that with the decline in the deer population, foxes became the main focus for many groups all over the United Kingdom.
The Quorn Hunt is located in Leicestershire, where Mr. Maynell owned land at thre time.
By 1754, he had purchased the town hall of the area, where he built a stable addition to house his many horses and the breed of hound he had created.
These hounds were his pride and glory. They were faster and had more stamina than other dogs of the day.
Along with his superior dogs and his steadfast devotion, Mr. Maynell was also a stickler for the sport rules.
But….what exactly are those rules? How is a fox-hunt performed?
First and foremost, a fox hunt is a social event that is done on horse-back, where a group of riders (predominantly male ones), use dogs to pick up the scent of a fox and chase it down.
A fox-hunt contains three branches of operation: the hounds, the staff and field.
The hounds track the scent of the fox, they take directions from the master of hunt.
The staff organise and direct the hunt. This group consists of the Master of Hunt, who leads the entire operation. He usually has a couple assistants who are known as Whipper-ins, and they help bring back stray hounds.
And the field are the rest of the hunt. They are broken into “flights”. The first flight are the strongest and fastest riders and they stay closest to the hounds.
The second flight are moderately paced, and the third flight contains the slowest riders.
Each flight has a Field Master, who communicates with members of the Staff in order to stay organised.
And of course, the most important part of the fox-hunt is the Fox. And unfortunately for him, if caught, he is ripped apart by the pack of dogs.
Personally I find that needlessly cruel, and the government in the UK agreed.
Traditional Fox hunting was banned in 2004, but the laws around this are fuzzy and inconsistent.
For instance, in Scotland, hounds may flush a fox out, but it must be killed by rifle.
In England, members of the hunt, are allowed have mock hunts.
This involves a person laying an artificial scent for pack and the team just performs the chase aspect.
Now people in opposition to Fox hunting claim that many illegal hunts where foxes are killed by dogs still take place.
So many of these are going on, in fact, that guerrilla groups known as Hunt Sabs (short for saboteurs), intentionally track these down and disrupt them.
There have been many violent clashes between the two sides, often leading to jail and hospital visits.
Now, I for one, am not against hunting for practical and cultural reasons, but I have to agree that Fox hunting is archaic and abusive.
The way I see it, the rules have been changed many times before and the organisations would be better off just adopting the new “mock” or manufactured hunts.
This way, they get to enjoy their sport, and nobody, especially the foxes, get hurt.
When I began research for this episode, I wasn’t expecting the majority of it to be on fox-hunting at all.
I figured that I’d find a bunch more Celtic mythology about foxes, like in the opening, and that would be that.
But, as we all know the Memento Mori Oracle has its own plan, and I’m just someone along for the ride.
This abrupt turn in content, began like all great things, with a ghost story.
In the village of Wycoller, in Lancashire, rests the 16th century ruins of a beautiful old estate house known as Wycoller Hall.
Originally built in 1590 by the Hartley family, it became the estate of the Cunliffe family after Elizabeth Hartley married Nicholas Cunliffe in 1611.
The Cunliffes had lost their original estates to settle debts years before, and so having this great home in their possession was quite the relief.
The estate traded hands over the centuries, though remaining with the family.
The home was eventually passed to a nephew of one of the many Cunliffe women.
His name was Henry Owen, and in order to claim his inheritance, he had to change his name to Henry Owen Cunliffe.
Henry undertook many renovations on the home, but by his death in the early 19th century, he had lost most of his money to gambling.
Wycoller was once again given to a nephew called Charles Cunliffe Owen, but he could not afford to pay the debts either, and the long held family estate was sold off.
It is also believed that the building was the real life inspiration for Ferndean Manor in the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
The famous Bronte sisters lived in a nearby village and were known to frequent Wycoller on their walks.
Charlotte would have witnessed the sad end of the once magnificent building. It’s around this time that many of its stones were sold off to construct nearby buildings, eventually leaving in its wake, just outer walls and crumbling archways.
There seems to be more than just the ghost of ruins, gambling addiction and literary magnificence that haunt the site however.
Every few years, generally on dark and stormy nights, reports come in of a spectral rider heading towards the hall, and minutes later the screams of his long dead wife break the silence of the nearby town.
One story of their interaction goes something like this.
Simon Cunliffe and his wife were residents of Wycoller Hall in the 17th century.
Simon, the squire of the manor, was held in high regard by the local parish therefore active on the social scene and an avid sportsman.
He was particularly drawn to fox-hunts, and was said to obsess over the chase.
One day, while on one of these hunts, the fox did the unexpected and ran through the gates of Wycoller Hall and inside the residence, and up the stairs to the master bedroom.
Simon, not one to give up the pursuit, forced his horse through the doors and up the stairs.
The fox, horse and man trio entering the bedroom was enough to send his wife into hysterical screaming.
This enraged Simon and he raised his whip to strike her for her cowardice.
It was then that the poor woman died suddenly of her fright.
People have reported seeing Simon riding his horse through the entrance of the ruined hall, hear a scream, and a few moments later see the ghostly figure ride away.
The ghost story of Wycoller Hall isn’t the only time that a fox-hunt and the dead have been companions.
On December 16th 2020 in the Peterborough Crematorium, the funeral for a local woman was disrupted by the Fitzwilliam Hunt.
As people lined the road to await their turn to pay their respects and say goodbye to the much loved woman, a red fox darted out from the nearby forest and sought safety in the graveyard.
Unfortunately, the pack of hounds was not far behind and followed her inside.
Funeral attendees stated that not only did the fox and dogs enter the grounds, the riders did as well.
So now you have hunters trying to call of dogs, mourners yelling at hunters, and a scared fox who hopefully got away.
The article doesn’t say.
What is does say however, is that the hunt-club issued an apology.
“The Hunt has apologised unreservedly for any distress caused and asked Crematorium management to pass on this apology to the mourners and funeral directors involved.
The incident was unintentional and occurred when hounds were being taken through Mucklands Wood back towards Milton Park. Hounds were recovered as quickly as possible.
Following this incident, we will be holding a meeting to discuss methods of ensuring that this does not happen again.”
You would think a Fox escaping a hunt into the safety of cemetery would be a one off thing, but as it turns out…it happens quite a lot.
In March 2019, a video surfaced of a fox hunter chasing a Vixen, which is a female fox, who had just given birth, inside a cemetery.
At one point you can see where 20 hounds had chased the poor fox into the cemetery.
For a moment it appears she is backed into a corner, but luckily she escapes with her life.
The man recording, who I assume is a Hunt Sab, can be heard saying:
“You pull him off! You pull him off that fox right now!”
To which the hunter responds:
“I’m doing it – get out the way.”
During my search I even came across a rather beautiful painting from 1850 called, He Is Among The Dead: The Fox Hunt In The Cemetery, so this is definitely not a modern phenomenon.
Perhaps on some level, the fox knows the cemetery is a place of protection and tranquility.
Where the hounds of hell cannot follow you…..or at the very least, they are a place people consider sacred, and they will step in to stop the hunt.