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The kennels of Lyme Hall in the 1890s.
The kennels of Lyme Hall in the 1890s.

Legendary Lyme Hall

Spanning some 600 years, the history of the world's oldest Mastiff kennel is as murky as it is enduring

Lyme Hall Mastiffs, the breed’s oldest, documented bloodline, is most famous for the romantic tale about its beginning.

Over time, several versions of the story have appeared. Essentially, an English knight, Sir Piers Legh (alternately, Legge, Legg or Lee, and pronounced “Lee”) of Lyme Hall, was wounded at the Battle of Agincourt. A Mastiff bitch protected him on the battlefield, preventing him from being killed or taken prisoner by French soldiers until his squire and servants could rescue him after the battle. That bitch subsequently produced a litter that provided the foundation for the famous Lyme Hall Mastiffs.

The battle of Agincourt took place October 25, 1415, in northern France during the Hundred Years War. The English army of 5,000 led by Henry V confronted 30,000 French soldiers. The decisive English victory is often described as miraculous, inviting centuries of legends associated with this battle.

 

Mastiff authority Betty Baxter notes that the Lyme Hall Mastiffs looked very much like the dog painted in Van Dyke's famous portrait of King Charles I's children, completed in 1637. "Their muzzles were longer and more tapering, and they look more like a Flat Coated Retriever, and as for colour, they could be piebald or brown and white," she wrote in The History and Management of the Mastiff.

 

Some sources contend that the Legh family had bred Mastiffs long before this. Considering their circumstances, it seems likely. However, no information exists regarding their original stock. It’s unclear whether Piers Legh’s protector was his own Mastiff, or a dog that came to his rescue on the battlefield.

“History is silent about even the parent bitch herself, although it has been stated positively that the Lyme Hall strain was descended from dogs born generations before Agincourt was won,” wrote Rawdon B. Lee in 1894 in A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland.

English knights commonly brought their dogs on military campaigns. During the Hundred Years War, this practice resulted in an incredible amount of crossbreeding between French and English breeds. It’s theorized that Lyme Hall Mastiffs descended from Alaunt stock, which would have been widely available in 14th Century France. England held French territory from 1154 to 1453, although all of it was lost by war’s end.

Piers remained in France after Agincourt, and died in Paris on June 16, 1422, from wounds received at the battle at Meux.

“The Lyme Hall strain was undoubtedly of alaunt descent, and it was claimed that the original of the strain was a bitch which defended Sir Peers Leigh when he lay wounded on the battlefield of Agincourt, October 25, 1415,” wrote Watson in The Dog Book in the early 1900s. “Sir Peers was removed to Paris, where he died, and there the bitch had whelps, which must have been from a foreign service.”

The term Alaunt actually denotes several multipurpose breeds developed from a combination of hound and mastiff. Perpetuated by the Alani tribes who settled in ancient Gaul, the dogs were used in classical times for hunting, guarding and controlling livestock. They were noted for speed, stamina, strength and gripping power, and were generally white in color. The white markings commonly seen on medieval Mastiffs were attributed to Alaunt ancestry.

 

Mastiff with Greyhounds in a painting by English animal painter Sawrey Gilpin in 1780. Alaunt heritage was thought to be responsible for the piebald pattern in early Mastiffs.

 

The best information on medieval dog development comes from Gaston III, Count of Foix and Béarn, called Phoebus. His Livre de Chasse, written between 1387 and 1389, describes three distinct types. Most valuable was the light, fast Alaunt Gentil. A heavier variety, the Alaunt Veantre, was described by Phoebus as shaped like a Greyhound with a large head. It was used for baiting bulls and hunting boar, and experts such as Watson contend that this was the foundation breed of Lyme Hall Mastiffs. At that time, the Mastiff was classified as a mongrel breed usedfor guarding, farm work and hunting. They were not customarily bred in royal kennels of France.

The Legh family had possessed their vast estate in Lyme Handley, Macclesfield, Cheshire, for almost a century when Sir Piers fought at Agincourt. It was first granted to Sir Thomas Danyers for distinguished service at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. In 1397, it passed to his daughter, Margaret, and her third husband, Piers Legh.

Unfortunately, two years later Piers was executed after finding himself on the wrong side of the York/Lancaster power struggle for the English throne. Despite centuries of political turmoil, Lyme Hall remained untouched by forfeiture or confiscation for 600 years. This was a resourceful, versatile group, who made the best of what they had.

Generations of Leghs were appointed as guardians of Macclesfield Royal Forest, which included Lyme Park’s vast lands and herds of deer and indigenous wild longhorn cattle. The first Sir Piers was appointed as equitation, or riding forester of Macclesfield Forest, which meant that he led Richard II on hunts in the forest. Piers Legh VII was appointed High Sheriff of Lancashire, and Piers Legh IX was Deputy Steward of Macclesfield Forest under Queen Elizabeth I. She also granted the Legh family free warren within the park and adjoining moorland, wood and water. This not only gave them tremendous rights to the area’s natural resources, but they had unlimited rights to hunt rabbits, hare, partridges and pheasants.

 

Above: Lyme Hall today. Below: A modern view of Lyme Hall's deer park (in medieval times, an enclosed area containing deer. In the distance is "The Cage," an 18th-Century hunting lodge later used as a hold for prisoners.

 

All of this wildlife needed constant protection from poaching, which was pervasive. Often, illegal hunting was a matter of survival in rural communities. Forest laws restricted hunting rights, but this wasn’t their primary purpose. Medieval rulers were powerful, but typically cash poor. Despite many accounts of death penalties for poaching, officials were far more interested in collecting fines, taxes and license fees for the royal coffers. Mastiffs were the dog of choice for guarding the homestead, patrolling the forest, and apprehending poachers.

Lyme Park’s hunting lodge became known as The Cage because it was used as a temporary lockup for poachers. However, England’s forest laws also severely restricted Mastiff ownership. “In Norman times, Mastiffs continued to be kept as watchdogs, and were the only dogs permitted within the precincts of forests on condition of being expatiated, so as to prevent them from killing deer,” reported Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopedia.

Eventually, a third of England was designated as Royal Forest. By the late 1600s, the cruel practice of “expatiation” was rarely enforced, though it had an undeniable impact on Mastiff development for several hundred years.

“Every dog in the kingdom, save those who passed the test of smallness, or whose owners had the King’s privilege, was maimed by the chopping off of three claws from the forefoot, even the mastiffs and watch-dogs to guard houses and herds,” explained an article entitled “Dogs and the Ancient Forest Laws” in the January 1912 issue of The Kennel. “The mastiff, being forced to set one of his forefeet upon a piece of wood was held there whilst a man, setting a chisel upon the three clawes of the forefoot, at one blow with the mallet doth smite them cleane off.”

Along with the responsibilities and benefits royal appointments, this also meant that Lyme Hall Mastiffs were exempt from forest laws.

In Englishe Dogges, Dr. John Caius offers a detailed portrait of the breed in 1570.

“The mastiff or bandog is vast, huge, stubborn, ugly, and eagre, of a heavy and burdensome body, and therefore but of little swiftness, terrible and frightful to behold, and more fierce and fell than any Arcadian cur, notwithstanding they are said to have their generation from the valiant lion. They are called Villatica, because they are appointed to watch and keep out-of-the-way farm places. .....They are serviceable against the fox and badger, to drive wild and tame swine out of meadows, etc, and to bait and take the bull by the ear when occasion requireth. For it is a kind of dog capable of courage violent and valiant, striking fear into the hearts of man, and standing in fear of no man, and no weapon will make him shrink or abridge his boldness.”

 

A charming letter written in 1584 by the Earl of Leicester (Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester of the fourth creation) to Sir Piers Leigh. "I thanke you very hartiley Sr Piers for yor hounde and will requyte you the loose of him wth as good a thinge," he wrote as a postscript. "Hound" was the customary term for "dog": here it refers to the Mastiffs.)

 

 

The Lyme Hall Mastiffs were first and foremost versatile, working dogs. They not only provided protection, they must have been essential to move and control Lyme Park’s free ranging, semi-feral livestock. Both the cattle and deer at Lyme Park were herded, and both were famous for their size, fierceness and propensity to attack.

For generations the Leghs were renowned for their expertise in animal husbandry. Along with cattle and deer, the family raised horses, sheep, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducklings, chickens, capons, rabbits and their own strain of monkeys for at least 300 years. In fact, for those who could afford them, Lyme Hall monkeys were among the most popular house pets of the era, and the family made a nice profit raising them, going for about £60 (almost $100) in 1660.

Lyme Park was 1,400 acres of desolate forest and moorland. The first actual house, a medieval hall house, replaced the hunting lodge around 1465. It was two miles from the nearest village, and travel was complicated and dangerous. A trip into town required guides to navigate the bogs and woods, and weapons, dogs and escorts for protection from human and animal predators. Traveling the 180 miles from Cheshire to London took six or seven days. This isolation explains why breeding programs of that era utilized very close matings. This had drawbacks, but it also ensured rapid development of consistent type.

“It is probable that in the case of the larger mastiffs which were kept as watch dogs, and were bred here and there by noblemen, that there was a far more definite attempt to gain size and establish type, and to this we owe the development of the dog into the mastiff of 1800,” theorized Watson in The Dog Book.

Lyme Hall Mastiffs may have descended from crossbred Mastiffs, Alaunts or both, and it’s likely that they did not conform to the modern ideal. But there is no question that this breeding program produced a recognizable type that became the prototype for England’s estate guardian Mastiff. In the 17th Century they were described as almost as large as donkeys with very broad chests. They were a pale lemon color, with black ears and muzzles, soft brown eyes, and gigantic heads that were described as similar to a Bloodhound.

Houndy head type and a longer muzzle seemed to be a consistent trait for centuries. It wasn’t regarded as a serious fault until 19th Century Mastiff experts began to weigh in on the subject. “One of the oldest strains of Mastiffs was that kept by Mr. Legh, of Lyme Hall, in Cheshire,” wrote Robert Leighton in The Complete Book of the Dog. “They were large, powerful dogs, and longer in muzzle than those which we are now accustomed to see.”

Watson, too, leveled his criticism. “Such of the Lyme Hall strain as we have seen lacked very much the short face of the mastiff, and were light in body, being altogether too much of the Dane in type.”

By the 1500s, Mastiffs were Britain’s celebrated breed, and Lyme Hall enjoyed a worldwide reputation. The Tudor mansion house at Lyme Hall is the largest in Cheshire, built by Sir Piers Legh VII around 1560, when the family’s fortunes were definitely ascendant. Then as now, hunting was a high-status activity that went hand in hand with social climbing. Over the centuries, the Leghs hosted English kings and queens, including the captive Mary, Queen of Scots. These lofty connections probably contributed to the growing reputation of Lyme Hall Mastiffs by ensuring that they were noticed by well-connected individuals. Traditionally, top-quality dogs were favored as diplomatic gifts, and Lyme Hall Mastiffs fell into this category.

In 1604, James I sent the Earl of Nottingham to Philip II of France, carrying the oath for the confirmation of the articles of space to end England’s war with Spain, along with presents for the Spanish king. The Legh family history mentions a reference in Stowe’s Annals to the contents of these “propitiatory gifts”:

“Sixe stately Horses, with saddles and saddle clothes very richly and curiously embroidered, that is to say three for the King and three for the Queene. Two Crosse bowes with Sheffes of Arrowes. Foure fowlling pieces with their furniture very richly garnished and inlaid with plates of gold. A Cupple of Lyme hounds of singular qualities.”

Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting, “Las Meninas” (Spanish for “The Ladies in Waiting”) depicts the children of Philip IV, with a large Mastiff in the foreground, one of the children rubbing its back with his foot. Later Mastiff experts point to the dog as the obvious descendents of this “cupple of Lyme hounds.”

 

Top left: Phyllis Elinor Sandeman (left) daughter of Thomas Wodehouse Hegh, the second Lord Newton, and her sister Hilda, with their Lyme Hall Mastiff "Lady," 1900-1910. Sandeman described growing up at Lyme Park in the 1952 book Treasure on Earth: A Country House Christmas, which included an illustration of Lady (above). "... Lady, the big mastiff, lay in her usual place in front of the fire. She was the last of her breed, the famous breed of Vyne mastiffs, of which there was documentary proof that a pair had been sent along with other gifts by James I to the King of Spain." Sandeman says a copy of Velasquez's "Las Mininas" (top right) hung on the grand staircase, "and certainly the dog in the picture bore a great resemblance to Lady and might well have been a descendant of the famous pair. People said what a pity it was to let the breed die out, but Sir Thomas was too great a lover of dogs to keep a pack of useless animals fretting their hearts out behind bars and only let out for exercise; for even at Vyne one huge dog in the house was enough: and so Lady was the last of her breed."

 

The Leghs survived the tumult of England’s Civil War and the Restoration and somehow managed to retain their political advantages. In 1661, Charles II appointed Richard Legh as Gamekeeper about Lyme in Cheshire. They continued to raise Mastiffs at Lyme Hall, but according to family records, “towards the end of the 18th century Peter Legh XIII suffered a family tragedy and let Lyme Park deteriorate into a dreadful state, which was further compounded by his successor.”

 

In Richard Ansell's 1868 oil painting, The Poacher, a brindle Mastiff stands over an estate intruder, who with his dog had already secured a good number of rabbits and pheasants. Ansell's own dogs came from Lyme Hall, and the one in this painting is considered typical of what the kennel produced, says Norman Howard Carp-Gordon in The Making of the Modern Mastiff. "The Lyme breed's head was more like a retriever's, with the muzzle being quite long and tapering and the lips showing only a slight overlap. Lyme Mastiffs were also lighter in body and stood higher on their legs than the type that became the standard."

 

The family’s decline coincided with the Mastiff’s. Bull and bear baiting had been losing public favor for more than a century before the passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act, which finally banned these activities in 1835. The introduction of the Newfoundland and St. Bernard also caused Mastiff popularity to plummet.

“After the cessation of the sport of bear baiting, the Mastiff seems to have become scarcer and scarcer, so that Sydenham Edwards in the Cynographica Britannica, published in 1800, and Taplin in The Sportsman’s Cabinet, published in 1803 inform us that the bred has been deteriorated by numerous crosses and was rarely to be seen in its purity,” explains Hutchinson’s. “Ample evidence remains, however, that at the end of the eighteenth century, and afterwards, fine specimens could still be found in the possession of wealthy noblemen and gentlemen.”

Salvation came in the form of Thomas Legh, who inherited Lyme Hall in the early 19th Century. Young, wealthy and energetic, he began restoring the house and grounds. Mastiffs also began to experience a renaissance in the late 19th Century.

 

Above left: Earl's 1870 study of Barry of Lyme Hall, which today hangs in the conference room at the American Kennel Club's Manhattan offices. Compared to an actual photo of Barry (above right), the painting is true to life. Barry was owned by H.D. Kingdon, who championed the Lyme Hall type in the 19th Century -- unsuccessfully, as it turns out. But Barry's short and broad muzzle and heavy dewlap make him "as far removed from the Lyme Hall type of that period as any Mastiff could be," noted Norman Howard Carp-Gordon in The Making of the Modern Mastiff, suggesting that crossbreeding with other Mastiff strains acounted for the difference. Kingdon and the Leghs insisted that the Lyme Hall line had remained pure throughout its history. Below: Beth of Lyme Hall, in an engraving from circa 1890. Again, notice the depature from the shorter, more massive head that was fast becoming standard Mastiff type. 

Thomas Legh’s son, William John Legh (1828–1898), was created 1st Baron Newton. Mastiffs remained a family preoccupation, judging by the design chosen for his shield of arms, showing two Mastiffs as supporters. He continued the improvements at Lyme Park, and spared no expense rebuilding the kennel in 1870. The Mastiffs were housed in a building of rock-faced buff sandstone, with red and blue brick minor walls, a slate roof and two stone chimneys. Laid out in an H-shape, it included six kennels with gabled windows, framed and boarded doors, and small rectangular yards with iron railings on stone-coped walls. A rectangular paddock in front was enclosed by larger similar railings with a gate in either side.

He also began efforts to revive the breeding program, which included working with another breeder, H. D. Kingdon, of Willhayne, Devon. In 1879, Hugh Dalziel reports in British Dogs, “One of the most astute judges and successful breeders (Mr. Edgar Hanbury) has thought highly and written of them [Lyme Hall Mastiffs] in most eulogistic terms, giving practical force to his expressed admiration by introducing them into his own kennels from Mr. Kingdon’s; and of several of the breed that I have seen I can say they were magnificent specimens, and I regret that so few opportunities are now afforded the public of seeing them at shows, as it is only by actual comparison that a fair judgment on relative merits of animals can be formed.”

A few of the Lyme Hall dogs found their way into Mastiff and Bullmastiff breeding programs in the late 1800s, but the line never regained its former status in the Mastiff world. Compared to the 19th-Century ideal, they appeared small, houndy, and hopelessly old fashioned. Speaking two decades later, in 1894, Rawdon Lee offered a scathing critique after visiting Lyme Hall, sarcastically noting that the best Mastiff he encountered was an 1876 painting by Nettleship.

 

A reproduction of a J.T. Nettleship painting commissioned by Lord Newton and first published in 1900. It represents the swan song of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs, as breeding discontinued shortly before World War I.

 

“On a recent visit to the ancient residence I found but about seven mastiffs present, and these were of a very inferior character in every way …. “ Lee wrote in A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland. “There was one dark fawn dog, others light fawn with black muzzles, and an animal that had been obtained to improve the strain that would have been best relegated to the tan yard. I was sorry to come to the conclusion that the Lyme Hall mastiff, with its historical traditions, was become a thing of the past, its place being usurped by inferior specimens not good enough to obtain a prize at any of our smallest dog shows. For the sake of his ancient repute it would have been better had the mastiff of the Leghs been allowed to entirely disappear, like the wild cattle which not many years ago grazed in the adjoining park, than to degenerate into the poor creatures we saw in the kennels there a few months ago. … I do not think that anyone who wishes to improve his strain of mastiffs to-day would fly to the Lyme Hall Kennels for the purpose.”

A Lyme Hall Mastiff with Lady Newton, wife of Thomas Wodehouse Legh, the second Baron Newton, in the first decade of the 1900s.

 

Lee was no admirer of Lyme Hall dogs, but he was correct in stating that the advent of dog shows heralded a radical change in type. The new style of Mastiff was developed within a few decades from a mixture of Great Dane (Boarhound), Alpine Mastiff (St. Bernard) and others.

According to the June 1885 American Kennel Register, “Our present race of mastiffs trace their ancestry back to between 1800 and 1815.” Both breeders and judges openly declared that size and type outweighed the importance of a documented lineage. “Hence, in judging mastiffs I do not care to consider whether they were manufactured twenty years ago, or have-an unspotted lineage from the Flood,” stated Hugh Dalziel.

Needless to say, this approach invited crossbreeding, exaggeration and faked papers.

The resulting massive dogs looked impressive, but breeders soon encountered inevitable problems, and the exaggerated type and prices of fad breeding began to self-destruct within a couple of decades. In 1922, Leighton writes: “At the Crystal Palace in 1871 there were as many as sixty-three Mastiffs on show, forming a line of benches two hundred yards long, and not a bad one among them; whereas at a dog show held twenty-five years later, where more than twelve hundred dogs were entered, not a single Mastiff was benched.”

The last Lyme Hall litter, bred in 1914.

 

Hindsight is 20/20. Ironically, breeders began to regret disappearance of traits like soundness, temperament and health that had made Lyme Hall Mastiffs legendary for centuries. In 1881, The Squire, a provincial English journal, editorialized on recent trends in Mastiff breeding. “The Mastiff, it is true, is not in such fierce demand as a few years ago, and those behind the scenes need no ghost from the grave to tell them why the grand old English Mastiff fell from public esteem. But as every lover of fine dogs is not necessarily behind the curtain, it may be as well to explain that the knavish dealings of the dog trade fairly disgusted the respectable members of the fancy and paralyzed the demand. … By gag advertisements, faked photos and misleading letters, whelps of worthless breeding have been foisted on amateurs at fabulous prices, with that result which could only be anticipated.” The writer closes by cautioning readers to choose dogs from a documented lineage, and consider health and temperament as well as size and head type.

The last of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs were put down in 1917 because of food shortages during World War I. The estate was inherited in 1942 by Richard Legh, 3rd Baron Newton. In 1946, he gave Lyme Park to the National Trust.

 

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