Skip to content

What is a deer park?

Written by
Image of Rachel Delman
Rachel DelmanHistorian, University of Oxford
A stag standing in grassy parkland, with trees and the house at Knole in the background
A stag in the parkland at Knole, Kent, in autumn | © National Trust Images/Jo Hatcher

Status symbol, hunting ground, timber source – since the Middle Ages, deer parks have played host to aristocratic pursuits at castles and great residences. Some of the deer parks in our care have herds that date back over 500 years. Today, only a handful remain but they tell a story of the power and privilege that came with enclosing land for private use.


Deer parks gained popularity in Britain after the Norman Conquest of the 11th century. Most parks were created between 1200 and 1350.

It is estimated that there were once over 3,000 deer parks across England, Scotland and Wales. These varied greatly in size, from several to thousands of acres. Today, only a handful remain, yet documentary evidence and boundary earthworks continue to provide evidence of now-lost parks.

Deer parks were a prominent feature of the British landscape until the English Civil War, when they were either broken up and converted into agricultural land or incorporated into post-medieval country estates.

How were deer parks created?

Creating a park was an elite privilege, and many lords obtained royal permission in the form of a licence to empark. Enclosing a park was a costly, time-consuming and disruptive process. Designed to keep intruders out and animals in, park boundaries usually comprised inner ditches and outer banks surmounted by a palisade or wall.

While in the earlier Middle Ages parks were often distanced from their associated houses, the later medieval aristocracy preferred parks that were next to or encompassed their residences. By reserving large areas of land for their own use, elites made conspicuous statements of their lordly privileges to others.

How deer parks were used

Parks were multi-functional spaces. They were primarily used for hunting, and also provided food and resources for building and fuel. They usually contained a mixture of woodland and grazing pasture, and included features such as fishponds, rabbit warrens and hunting lodges.

The hunt was an aristocratic pastime, which showcased the lord’s wealth and hospitality. Game was enjoyed during feasts and was gifted between elites to consolidate alliances. The hunt also inspired the interior decoration of residences, with medieval and Tudor tapestries often displaying hunting scenes.

Decorative deer at Hardwick Hall

The magnificent plaster frieze at Hardwick Hall was made in around 1600, and depicts the court of the goddess Diana surrounded by scenes of deer and boar hunting.

Close-up of the frieze of Diana showing classical figures, deer and trees
The frieze of Diana, above the canopy in the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Landscapes of power

Deer parks have long interested historians and remain a vibrant topic of scholarly discussion. Researchers continue to debate everything from their ecology and economics to their function as status symbols and settings for lordly residences.

Although they are traditionally considered male spaces, recent research has explored women’s creation and use of deer parks. Advancements in archaeological and scientific techniques also continue to shed new light on their form and function. The study of deer parks thus continues to inform, shape and even challenge our perceptions of life in medieval and early modern Britain.

Historic deer parks in our care

Charlecote Park, Warwickshire

There has been a deer park at Charlecote since the 16th century. Although no documentary evidence can be found, it’s a popular rumour that a young William Shakespeare was once apprehended for poaching in the park in the early 1580s.

Petworth, Sussex

A magnificent herd of fallow deer have called Petworth Park home for over 500 years, and were reportedly hunted by Henry VIII on his visit to the house in the 1500s. The park was transformed in the 1750s and early 1760s by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and is one of the finest surviving examples of English landscape design.

Fallow deer standing in grass parkland in front of trees and Petworth House
Fallow deer in the parkland at Petworth, Sussex, in autumn | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Knole, Kent

The park at Knole was first enclosed in 1456. Its 1,000 acres have been home to the same fallow deer herd since at least the 15th century and home to some Japanese sika deer since the 1890s.

You’ll also find deer parks in our care at:

  • Calke Abbey
  • Dunham Massey
  • Knole
  • Lyme
  • Powis Castle
  • Studley Royal

This article was written by Rachel Delman, a historian whose research explores residences that were commissioned and headed by high-status women in late medieval and early Tudor England. Her work considers how female authority was expressed through the design, layout and use of the great residence and its wider landscape.

You might also be interested in

A family in the medieval deer park at Dunham Massey, with two young fallow deer in the foreground

Visiting the deer park at Dunham Massey 

Dunham Massey's deer park is an historic parkland and naturally spacious place to visit. Walk along the leafy avenues and admire the far-reaching views while getting a breath of fresh air.

Deer roaming the parkland on a frosty morning at Knole, Kent

Wild deer herd at Knole 

Knole’s parkland is home to a herd of fallow deer and it’s important to us that everyone has the best experience possible, so here are some dos and don’ts.

Herds of deer at Fountains Abbey in the autumn

Looking after the deer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal 

Deer management at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal is an essential part of the work the team does. Read on to learn about the National Trust’s position on deer management.

View across the Upper Pond to the West Front of the house at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex

The history of Petworth House and Park 

From Tudor monarchs to Romantic painters, discover the rich history of Petworth House. Follow its journey from medieval home to grand and inspirational house.

Red deer stags sparring during rutting, above Coalpit Clough on the Lyme Park Estate, Cheshire

Best places to see deer rutting 

Every autumn, drama unfolds as male deer lock antlers in competition for females. Find out where to visit during deer rutting season to see one of nature's annual spectacles.

Fallow deer (Dama dama) grazing on the Crom Estate, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

Deer-spotting tips 

Find out about fallow, red and muntjac deer, how to tell them apart and other top tips for seeing and photographing them at the places we care for.

The dovecote in the walled garden at Felbrigg, shown with the lily pond in the foreground.

What are Trusted Source articles? 

Find out more about our Trusted Source articles, which were created in partnership with the University of Oxford, and explore topics related to the special places in our care.