What is a deer park?

Stag in the parkland at Knole, Kent

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.

Origins

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.

Creation

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.

Use

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.

Historic deer parks in our care
Calke Abbey in Derbyshire is home to 80 red and fallow deer

Calke Abbey 

Extended from its Tudor boundaries in the late eighteenth century, Calke's deer park now spans 67 acres of parkland. During the 1970s, the park walls were dilapidated and a new enclosure was created. Further changes in 1988 excluded the Pleasure Grounds.

Fallow deer on frosty day in winter near Charlecote Park house

Charlecote Park 

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

Deer in front of the house at Dunham Massey

Dunham Massey 

Dunham Massey has been home to a deer park since at least 1353, with a brick wall enclosing the park completed in 1751. Today the herd includes all four colours of fallow deer – common (tan with white spots, fading to a grey colour in winter), menil (tan but with white spots year round), melanistic (almost entirely black or chocolate coloured) and white (a pale sandy colour, turning white with age).

Knole Park in Kent is home to a wild deer herd

Knole 

The park at Knole was first enclosed in 1456. Its 1000 acres have been home to the same fallow deer herd since at least the fifteenth century and home to some Japanese sika deer since the 1890s.

Deer in front of The Cage at Lyme Park, House and Garden

Lyme  

There have been deer at Lyme for over 600 years and their presence has played a pivotal role in the history of the estate. Visit during the rutting season in October and witness the stags showcasing their prowess, or see the baby deer in June.

Petworth House and Park deer

Petworth 

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.

An autumnal view of the terraces below Powis Castle, Powys, Wales

Powis Castle 

Powis Castle was built in the thirteenth century by a Welsh prince, Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn. The medieval deer park is still in use today.

A mother leads her young through Studley Royal deer park

Studley Royal  

Studley Royal Park, including the ruins of Fountains Abbey, combines buildings, gardens and landscapes constructed over a period of 800 years and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today the deer park is home to over 500 deer, and once contained the Tudor manor house known as Studley Royal House.

The High Great Chamber plaster frieze at Hardwick Hall

Decorative deer at Hardwick Hall 

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