I was at Kew the other day and encountered a large branded golden bunny on the lawn: a symbol of how commercial everywhere, however historic and significant, has had to become in recent years. One of the greatest botanic gardens and scientific research centres in the world, reduced to reminding us that “Chocoholics of all ages can follow an Easter trail around the Gardens to collect clues before heading over to one of the on-site shops or gates to pick up their chocolate treat.”
I suppose, in these days of austerity, it could be a lot worse, and there are obviously two sides to everything. Kew are able to tie it in with some good educational work, and yes maybe it might help introduce future generations to the joys of horticulture and history. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I know I am a grumpy old cynic, it’s hardly a lesson in national pride in the Year of the Garden.
But apart from a sigh of exasperation at the levels to which Kew has to go to raise cash it alerted me to the fact that it’s Easter and that I hadn’t planned anything remotely appropriate for this week’s post. So, rant over, bunnies it is – although non-chocolate ones!
Believe it or not rabbits were not always a common sight in the countryside and garden in Britain. Indeed, unlike the hare, they are not even native. Archaeologists have found rabbit bones on Roman sites in the southern and eastern parts of England, but if language is anything to go by, and hard though it is to believe, the rabbits the Romans introduced did not escape and thrive after their departure, as there is no Old English word for them.
Rabbits were deliberately re-introduced after the Norman Conquest. Then, again hard to believe, they were considered great rarities and highly valued both for their meat and their fur which was considered a luxury. There is evidence that they were farmed on islands and coastal sites during the twelfth century, with records from Lundy, the Scilly Isles and the Isle of Wight dating from 1176. By the 13thc there is evidence of rabbits being farmed elsewhere, one of the first being the royal warren at Guildford in 1241. and by then, as a measure of their value, one rabbit was worth more than a workman’s daily wage.
Rabbits were carefully reared and cosseted inside specially enclosed protected areas known as warrens or coneygarths from the Middle English term – coning-erth. [At that time adults of the species were called coneys from the Latin cuniculus whilst rabbit generally referred only to the young.] But since only those with manorial rights could own a warren, rabbits enjoyed the same exclusive protection as, for example, the pigeons in a lord’s dovecote.
The coneygarth usually contained one or more ‘pillow mounds’ – rectangular flat-topped heaps of earth, up to 20m in length, sometimes interconnected, and often containing stone-lined tunnels. They are ideal for rocky areas where rabbits are unable to dig their way out!, otherwise they needed to be surrounded by a water-filled ditch.
There was at least one wonderful exception to these artificial constructions. The Abbot of Cirencester Abbey in 1291 constructed a rabbit warren but his was made in the remains of the town’s Roman amphitheatre, where presumably, once the gaps in the ruined walls had been stopped up, the rabbits could roam freely.
Rabbit warrens were a very common feature of the mediaeval and early modern rural landscape, and continued to be built right through until the end of the 19th, but according to Tom Williamson, are very poorly recorded in the historical record. Even the most recent warrens are sometimes only known because of their names or references in estate papers, so there is a great deal of reliance on the archaeological evidence for what we know of them.
The remains of about 2,000 warrens thought to survive in Britain, but as they are often no more than small bumps in the landscape they can be easy to overlook. The largest surviving concentrations, of at least 20 sites, are on the southern side of Dartmoor, and in the Breckland, but there are, for example, also at least a dozen in Blenheim Park.
For a more detailed look at the Dartmoor examples see:
For a more detailed look at the warrens of the Breckland take a look at:
If you want to see even more examples then a google search for “pillow mounds” will bring up dozens more photos and references in virtually ever corner of the country to while away a few more hours!
The keepers of the rabbits, known as warreners, were usually one of the highest-paid of manorial officials. They were responsible for the feeding and care of the rabbits, for trapping them when required, and for guarding them against predators, both animal and human. Rabbit meat and skins were sufficiently valuable to encourage armed gangs of poachers to attempt raiding the warrens. Warreners usually lived on site in specially built houses or lodges, as part of the warren itself.
At Thetford, a rare surviving example, the lodge is semi-fortified, more like a miniature castle than a house. It was built around 1400 by the prior of Thetford Priory. The lodge had substantial walls and only one entrance. There was a viewing platform on the parapet from which the warrener, who lived on the upper floor, to survey the surrounding countryside. Inside the ground floor was used for their traps, nets, and racks on which to hang meat and dry skins. The only other surviving Breckland warren lodge, the 600 year old year Mildenhall lodge has recently been restored by the Friends of Thetford Forest.
For more on Thetford Warren Lodge, now maintained by English Heritage, see:
and for more on the restoration of Mildenhall see:
For much of the mediaeval period these rabbit warrens were almost the sole source of supply for rabbits. Of course some undoubtedly escaped but the rights of free-warren meant that hunting rabbits, along with game birds and hares, also became a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.
You wouldn’t go to all this trouble just for a common pest, however pretty it might be. It was because rabbit farming was such profitable industry.
It was certainly profitable for the gentry in the 16th and 17th centuries and there is evidence for new warrens being established on estates all over country. There can be no doubt though that the most spectacular warrener’s lodge was built in the late 16thc by Sir Thomas Tresham, on his estate at Rushton in Northants.
Sir Thomas had inherited his estates at a very young age and determined to improve them using the latest agricultural methods. He emparked [or enclosed] a large part of his estates and began intensively farming sheep which were sold all over the midlands as well as London. He then established a warren at Rushton which became a money-making sideline for the estate with rabbits being bred for the London market. As the warren was established well away from the Rushton Hall itself it meant building a warrener’s lodge . This was started in 1594, and what a warrener’s lodge it proved to be.
Of course, as you probably guessed from looking at the photos there was more to Tresham’s lodge than meets the eye…or rather it’s all there for the eye to see but the eye perhaps chooses not to understand.
So what was going on?
In fact Tresham built two towers at about the same time. The second, now gone, was apparently much simpler and more conventional in design. The usual story about the surviving tower is that the warrener stored his equipment and rabbit skins and meat etc in the lower floors and lived upstairs. However, given that there were two towers, and the second was plainer, it’s much more likely that it was that one which was used for the more utilitarian purposes of rabbit keeping. Which leaves the question of what was the bizarre triangular tower for?
The reason Sir Thomas needed to improve the returns from his estate and so, amongst other things, kept rabbits on a grand scale, was because of his need to raise money.
This was not just because he always a generous host, regularly feeding his tenantry, friends, and county society, but also because of his personal circumstances. Like all good parents he wanted good matches for his daughters, and providing marriage settlements and jointures was an extremely expensive business, especially if you wanted them to marry upwards as Tresham clearly did. Four of his daughters married to peers or future peers – and the cost of their settlements ran to £12000. Next, his son and heir Francis was a bit of a wastrel, and frequently needing bailing out by his parents. At least £4000 is recorded for his fines, debts and bribes to get him out of trouble.
And finally, and more personal still, Tresham needed cash because he was a devout Catholic. This was at a time when Catholicism was regarded with high levels of suspicion. Elizabth I was prepared to tolerate Catholics who outwardly conformed to the rites of the Anglican church, or at least attend church services every so often. But Tresham was stubborn and refused to do so. As a result he was always being fined for his religious beliefs – or rather for his refusal to pay lip-service to the establihsed church. His recusancy cost him about £8000 as well as long stretches of imprisonment during the course of hs life.
Tresham is a very complex figure. Highly educated and intellectual he seems to have built the triangular lodge not for his warrener but as a testament to his own faith. It was far enough away from the house, and high enough, to see anyone approaching. It could have served as place of contemplation for his, or even as a report of the period suggested, even as a place for clandestine Catholic masses.
As you may have guessed from the photos the base of the building is an equilateral triangle. There are three floors with three windows, containing triangles, crosses and trefoils, to each floor. On the top of each wall are three gables. Whilst outwardly the theme of ‘three’ represented the Christian Holy Trinity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so was acceptable to Anglicans, its symbolism was more obviously Catholic.
Around the exterior walls are inscriptions in Latin, as well as numbers, armorial bearings and other carvings. On the entrance front is the inscription ‘Tres Testimonium Dant’ (‘there are three that give witness’), a Biblical quotation from St John’s Gospel referring to the Trinity. It is also a pun on Tresham’s name; his wife called him ‘Good Tres’ in her letters. Inside the building are three hexagonal rooms, each with three triangular rooms leading off them. Finally the three walls of the lodge are each 33 feet wide, and of course, Jesus Christ was 33 when he was crucified that first Good Friday.
So in a roundabout way this post did prove to be about Easter after all!
More on rabbits and more on Tresham shortly.!