Although the origin of the Bulldog today is not known exactly, it is thought that the Bulldog comes from an ancient, fierce mastiff-like breed which was used to restrain wild oxen and to hunt wild boar. The word Bulldog was first used in a 1598 description of a bullbaiting contest. However, it is generally thought that the Bulldog was a well-known breed in England long before. Bandogs, Bonddoggess, and Bolddogges were repeatedly mentioned in English literature beginning around 1200, when the sport of bullbaiting first became popular in England. However, there is a reference to British Hounds that attacked bulls dating back to 395 AD. These dogs were bred and trained to bite and hang on to the noses, ears and necks of bulls.
During bullbaiting the Bulldog had to bite the bull in the nose and hang on, without ever letting go of his hold on the bull. These dogs could retain their hold even after their entrails had been torn out. The dogs often bled to death from wounds received from the bull. Enthusiasts in the early bull and bearbaiting contests included all classes of people. In 1559, Queen Elizabeth was noted to be an enthusiast and often hosted grand social gatherings centered on bullbaiting. At that time, almost every village in England had its own bullring and huge amounts of money were spent on sportrelated wagers. Therefore the dogs were selectively bred for power, courage and tenacity.
In 1835, bullbaiting contests were forbidden in England by an act of Parliament. After the abolishment the number of purebred Bulldogs declined greatly. This was due to the growing popularity of the sport of dog fighting, which replaced bullbaiting as a favourite public entertainment in the late nineteenth century in England. Breeders began crossbreeding bulldogs with terrier-type breeds to develop a much more agile fighter.
Around 1840 the existing Bulldog breed was bred to become a smaller, gentler dog in order to create a more domesticated housedog. The Bulldog thus evolved from a sporting dog into a gentler companion, and its existence was preserved by fanciers of the breed in England and France to serve as a household companion and pet. Ironically, the English Bulldog today, because of its extraordinary calm, kind and sweet temperament and disposition, is very different from his ferocious and vicious ancestor.
During the Middle Ages, the sport of baiting was extremely popular in England and was patronised by all classes of people, from the highest to the lowest in the land. Almost every town and village in the country had its bull ring. The baiting of animals may be traced to an early period in English history. It was also a favourite form of amusement among the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans, as well as the people of other ancient nations. Bulls, bears, horses, and other animals were trained for baiting. This barbarous practice, the rise of which cannot be satisfactorily ascertained, had the sanction of high antiquity. Fitz-Stephen, who lived during the reign of Henry II and whose "Description of the City of London" was written in 1174, informs us that in the forenoon of every holiday during the winter season, the young Londoners were amused with boars opposed to each other in battle, or with bulls and full-grown bears baited by dogs. Asses, although they did not sufficiently answer the purpose of the sport, were occasionally treated with the same inhumanity, but the baiting of horses was never a general practice.
The original bull-baiting at Tutbury (probably at the Bankside Bear Garden) is thus described by John Houghton: "I'll say something of baiting the bull, which is by having a collar about his neck fastened to a thick rope about three, four, or five yards long, hung to a hook so fastened to a stake that it will turn around. With this the bull circulates to watch his enemy, which is a bull dog (commonly used for this sport), with a short nose, that his teeth may take the better hold. This dog if right, will creep upon his belly that he may, if possible get the bull by the nose, which the bull carefully tries to defend by laying it close to the ground, where his horns are also ready to do what in them lies to toss this dog; and this is true sport. But if more dogs than one come at once, or they come under his legs, he will if he can stamp their guts out. The custom was for owners of dogs who wished to bait the bull to each pay entrance fees and if their dog pinned the bull they received a prize. The reward might be five shillings, a gold laced hat, a silver watch, or an ornate dog collar."Many great wagers were laid on both sides and great journeys would men and dogs go on for such diversion." As mentioned previously, the first bull-runnings in England were supposed to have been at Stamford in the year 1209, in the reign of King John, and at Tutbury in 1374. There are, however, grounds for the belief that bull-baiting began much earlier, and that it was probably first indulged in by butchers who employed their dogs to chase, catch, and throw the bulls, and to bait them so as to render the flesh tender. Moreover, Claudian's writings suggest that the practice of baiting bulls was a form of diversion in his time."William, Earl of Warren, Lord of the town, standing upon the walls of the castle saw two bulls fighting for a cow in the castle meadow, until all the butchers' dogs pursued one of the bulls (maddened with noise and multitude) clean through the town. This sight so pleased the Earl, that he gave the castle meadow where the bulls' duel began for a common to the butchers of the town after the first grass was mowed, on condition that they should find a mad bull the day six weeks before Christmas Day, for the continuance of the sport forever."
This may or may not have been the origin of the old English sport of bull-baiting. At any rate, wherever it began, it became more popular with the passing years. Its popularity created a demand for dogs qualified for the sport. These dogs were selected and bred for courage, power, and ferocity. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, bull-baiting was a national sport in England. It was not uncommon to see the dogs at early English baits, with their entrails trailing on the ground, urged again and again to run at the bull they were baiting. In one case, a dog of great repute was gored by the bull so that his bowels were torn out. Securing them in their place with needle and thread, the spectators, in consequence of some wager depending upon the outcome of the baiting, then set the dog at the bull in this mangled and almost dying condition.
In many towns the butchers were liable to a penalty if they sold the flesh of a bull in the market without having had the animal baited on the previous market day. The reason for this was that the flesh of a baited bull was universally considered more tender and nutritious than that of animals slaughtered without first being submitted to the process. The belief, while it does not excuse the brutality of the act, may have been founded on fact. The excited state of the animal just before death would have tended to hasten putrefaction, and the flesh would have had to be cooked sooner or it would have been unfit to eat. There can be little doubt that bullbaiting, as practised by the early English, was not merely a cruel sport intended to gratify the lowest and basest passions, but also was intended as a means of rendering wholesome and nutritious a large quantity of flesh that otherwise would not have been utilised.In the old Court Roll of the Manor at Barnard Castle, it is stated that "no butcher shall kill any bull two years old upwards, unless he first be brought to the ring and sufficiently halted." The ring in Barnard Castle (fixed in a large stone that was level with the pavement) was in the Market Place opposite the District Bank. Bulldogs of a strain known as "Lonsdales," named for Lonsdale, a butcher and publican who lived at Barnard Castle about 1780, were in demand for many years.In 1802, after a very heated discussion, a bill to abolish bull-halting was thrown out of the House of Commons. The practice continued until 1835 when it was made illegal by an Act of Parliament.Bull-bailing continued to be practised occasionally at the West Derby Wakes until about 1853, and baits were held at Wirksworth as late as 1838 or 1840. The last bull-bait in Aylesbury took place on September 26, 1821. At Ashbourne the final bait was held in 1842, while at Lancashire the practice continued until about 1841 or 1842. It is interesting to note how many years passed after the Act of Parliament before the custom died out completely.With the decline of bull-baiting, the number of pure-bred Bulldogs began to diminish rapidly. One early writer states that they Were occasionally to be obtained in London and Birmingham and a few scattered places in the Black Country.An engraving of Wasp, Child, and Billy, published May 15, 1809, -bore the following account in the margin: "The above Bulldogs, the property of H. Boynton, Esq. originally of the late Duke of Hamilton's breed, and the only ones left of the blood, are in such high estimation that Mr. Boynton has received one hundred and twenty guineas for Billy, and twenty guineas for a whelp before taken from the bitch. It is asserted that they are the only real Bulldogs in existence, and upon their decease this species of dog may be considered as extinct."The sport of dog-fighting which succeeded bull-baiting in public fancy, was largely responsible for the diminishing number of pure-bred Bulldogs. Many breeders began crossing the Bulldog with the Terrier because they felt that such a cross produced a better fighter.Bull-baiting portrays another chapter in the evolution of the breed as a sporting dog. And a survey of the facts surrounding the Bulldog's use for bull-baiting cannot but instil admiration for the courage and determination required in this old English sport.