“A stag and a hare hunt are the rude means employed by a village community for maintaining either its standards of morals or expressing its disapprobation of petticoat rule… The Stag Hunt takes place on the wedding-night of a man who has married a girl of light character or when a wife is suspected of having played her husband false.”, Baring Gould, pp. 178-179.
Ever since the day mankind invented neighbours there has been an unspoken rule of expected standards and morals attached to each and every community, in later years laws and statutes were laid down on a more formal level. However, within the community their rules and morals were sometimes outside of those laws and encompassed acts or deeds that were not necessarily covered by them. In such circumstances the community as a whole found ways to express their outrage and formally shame the perpetrators. As can be gathered from Baring Gould’s comments above, aside from departing from the communities expected moralistic standards ‘petticoat rule’ was also unacceptable. From this it can be concluded that overbearing wives were not regarded in the best of lights. Baring Gould also quotes a public notice he once actually saw regarding a Stag Hunt; “Notice! On Thursday night the Red Hunter’s pack will meet at the ….. inn, and will run to ground a famous stag. Gentlemen are requested to attend.” This notice was reported to the police but they refused to intervene as no breach of the peace had been committed. p.193.
As with all small and remote settlements on Dartmoor (or anywhere else) there was/is very little that went on without the neighbours ‘newsin’ all the lurid facts and giving their opinions on such matters. For example; should a wife be having an affair then this was not actually breaking any statute law but would highly offend the community if they thought it was without cause or provocation. Such a deed had to be punished and the offender publically shamed and made only too well aware of the displeasure she had caused within her community. The same principle would apply to any misdeed which was deemed locally as inappropriate behaviour.
So what was a Stag Hunt? There were several variations on the theme but in all cases the end result was to shame the offender and display the communities displeasure. Generally the stag hunt involved a man who would play the role of the stag with antlers or horns on his head, he also carried a bladder of animal blood about his person. There would then be the huntsman who would be adorned in a red coat and who was in charge of his hound pack consisting of youngsters from the village. The hunt would take place up and down the village until the stag finally went to bay on the intended offender’s doorstep. The huntsman would then dispatch the stag by slitting open the bladder thus spilling the blood all over the doorstep. This communicated two things; firstly the victim had been shown their neighbours displeasure and secondly the bloody doorstep communicated to all and sundry what had happened and why.
There was a slightly different format to the Stag Hunt carried out in the mid to late 1800s at Drewsteignton, the last recorded happening of such was in 1894. In this version there was still the huntsman and his hounds but what differed was the role of the stag was played by the offender. There was basically two options here, do it the easy way and comply or do it the hard way and regret it. So, the stag would be sent off with the huntsman and his hounds in hot pursuit, what probably gave this hunt a bit more excitement was that the stag would be desperate not to be caught for selfish reasons. Once caught instead of a ‘bloody’ end the victim would be dragged off to the nearest stream or pond and given a good ducking, after which he would be allowed to make their sorry and shameful way home.
Just on the opposite side of the moor at the village of Lydford was a similar practice known as ‘Riding to Water‘, instead of a hunt this one involved a noisy procession of neighbours following the offenders on a donkey. Eventually the merry band would end up by the river Lyd and the victims flung in. Again name and shame.
Just imagine if such a practice were possible today, forget your ASBOs and community service this punishment not only names and shames offenders but displays a clear message that the local community will not tolerate or put up with bad behaviour. The sad thing is that as the law stands today the offender would be filing an assault or criminal damage charge?
Baring Gould, S. 1889. Red Spider. London: Chatto & Windus.