If you were to go to Leciester on Easter Monday you may have been witness to the annual congregation of horse-riding dignitaries, amongst them the Lord Mayor, ready to ride off to hunt the hare. The event is first recorded in the Town records in 1668, but as it was probably by then an ancient custom. The association with hare hunting and Easter was not unique to Leicester, there is a 1574 account that 12d was given to to ‘the hare-finders at Whetston Court’ and of course hares are ‘on the menu’ although now beef I believe in Leicestershire’s Hallaton Hare Pie and Bottle kicking! Just over the border in Coleshill, Warwickshire, the parson would give a groat, a calf’s head and a hundred eggs, if a hare was presented to him by the young men of the Parish before 10 o’clock on Easter Monday!
Another account is in the Calendar of State Papers which records:
“1620, April 2. Thos. Fulnety solicits the permission of Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to kill a hare on Good Friday, as huntsmen say that those who have not a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.”
Returning to Dane Hills, it is in Throsby’s History of Leicester gives the longest and most detailed account:
“It had long been customary on Easter Monday for the Mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers, in form, to go to a certain close, called Black-Annis’ Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom perhaps originating out of a claim to the royalty of the forest. Hither, on a fair day, resorted the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed.”
However, although hares were the quarry they were perhaps at the time of Throsby’s account getting a bit scarce, therefore after the morning was spent in ‘various amusements and athletic exercises’:
“a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water for commencing the mock-hunting of the hare. In about half-an-hour, after the cat had been trailed at the tail of a horse over the grounds in zig-zag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. . . . As the cat had been trailed to the Mayor’s door, through some of the principal streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the Mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends; in this manner the day ended.”
Why did they do the custom? As the land was held time immemorial as part of the demesne of the ancient Earls of Leicester passing to the crown in the reign of Henry IV, and thus Kelly’s Notices of Leicester believes that:
“this formal ceremony of hunting in their state robes was adopted by the Corporation as an assertion of their right of free warren over the lands in question”.
However, the hunting of the hare is as noted an ancient tradition long older than the medieval perhaps. The site, Dane hill is believed to be derived from a possible pagan deity who is remembered as Black Annis (derived from the Celt Anu?). It was bogeyman or witch who would ‘suck on their blood’, as noted in Leicester Chronicle of 1894, of children. Is it a coincidence that the hunters dragged a cat soaked in anni-seed? This is especially suspicious considering that the legend of the bogeyman was called in the 1890s as ‘Cat Anna’ or did this remember the cat soaked in anniseed?
The custom survived until 1767, but as often happens the associated ‘amusements’ which arose around it continued for longer. An account from April 2nd 1842 notes:
“The Dane Hill Fair was crowded with visitors, principally young people of the working classes, and the fields beyond the spot where the field is held were also thronged with merry-makers.”
This fair was the last vestige of the unusual custom and died out in 1842. And hares or dead cats be sighing relief!