What is a deer park?
Deer parks are large, enclosed areas of land created for the purpose of housing deer and other game. They are usually associated with castles and great residences.
Deer parks gained popularity in Britain after the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century. Most parks were created between 1200 and 1350.
It is estimated that there were once over three thousand 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.
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 which stood 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.
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.
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.