The corner of London where bloodthirsty Elizabethans killed bears and bulls in front of huge cheering crowds – My London
London in the 16th and 17th Century would have been unrecognisable to us modern folk.
It was a city full of arts and theatre, with writers like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe riding high on the adulation of Elizabethan crowds.
It was also a rather murky place, with bar taverns filled with drunks and dark streets leading down to the River Thames where smuggling and crime was rife.
Although it would horror many Londoners today, an extremely popular past time for locals was bear and bull baiting.
It seems the Elizabethans could not get enough of seeing bulls and bears fighting at huge theatres in blood splattered pits.
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There is evidence that the “sport” began as early as the 12th, but it was during the 16th Century that bear-baiting and bull-baiting in London became the must attend event.
In bull-baiting it was commonplace for the bull’s nose to be filled with pepper before the fight so that the bull was already full of rage even before the baiting began.
In both bull and bear baiting the animals were chained to a post in the centre of the pit before specially-trained dogs would be set upon them.
The most common breed of dog used in the fights was a now extinct breed called the Old English Bulldog.
Street sign for Bear Gardens, London. This street runs through three bear gardens (or animal-baiting rings): no 3/3A, no 4, the Hope, and no 5, Davies’s. (Photo by MOLA/Getty Images) (Image: MOLA/Getty Images)
During the fight a number of dogs would attack the bulls and bears one at a time and attempt to wear the larger animals down.
A successful attack would result in the dog fastening his teeth strongly in the bull’s snout.
Robert Langham, who wrote about the entertainments enjoyed in the Elizabethan period, described the spectacle of bear baiting in a letter, he wrote: “It was a very pleasant sport, of these beasts, to see the bear with his pink eyes leering after his enemies approach, the nimbleness and wait of the dog to take his advantage, and the force and experience of the bear again to avoid the assaults.
“If he were bitten in one place, how he would pinch in another to get free, that if he were taken once, then what shift, with biting, with clawing, with roaring, tossing and tumbling, he would work to wind himself free from them.
“And when he was loose, to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slather about his physiognomy, was a matter of goodly relief.”
In 1835 baiting was finally made against the law through the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835.
Where did bull-baiting and bear-baiting happen in London?
Plan of Bankside, Southwark, London, c1570. Showing the arenas for bull and bear baiting, the pike gardens and Winchester Park. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images) (Image: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
There is a lot of confusion about wear baiting actually took place in London with no concrete evidence of an exact location.
However, there are many historical sources which tend to place the arenas in the same places.
The Agas map of London which was produce in the 16th Century clearly shows sitting on the banks of the River Thames two arenas, one named the “Bolle Bayting” and the other “Beare Bayting”.
Bankside in Southwark
The strongest evidence for bear and baiting arenas in London pinpoints two locations in Southwark.
The area the arenas were described as being located is Paris Garden, or Bankside.
Specifically it is mentioned that the arenas were in the Liberty of the Clink, which is also famous for one of London’s oldest prisons.
If still here today they would be located opposite the City of London, where Shakespeare’s Globe now sits.
A plan of the Bankside area of London by the river Thames, including areas of bull and bear baiting, around 1610. (Photo by Epics/Getty Images) (Image: Photo by Epics/Getty Images)
There is also reference in historical documents to the “Beargarden” in Southwark, which may or may not be the same as the two named “Bolle Bayting” or “Beare Bayting”
Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: “After dinner, with my wife and Mercer to the Beare-garden, in Southwark, where I have not been, I think, of many years, and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs: one into the very boxes. But it is a very rude and nasty pleasure”.
The Southwark arenas are believed to have closed down in the late 17th Century, and a new location for bear and bull fighting was found in Hockley-in-the-Hole, an area of Clerkenwell.
An advert for baiting at Hockley-in-the-Hole in 1700, described it as: “Being a general day of sport by all the old gamesters and a great mad bull to be turned loose in the game place with fireworks all over him and two or three cats tied to his tail and dogs after them.”
It is understood that it was roughly where the Ray Street Bridge stands today, north of the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road.
Tiltyard (Horse Guards Parade) of Whitehall Palace
Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were known to enjoy bear and bull baiting.
Henry loved it so much that he held his own bear baiting fights at Tiltyard.