Bulls Finally Spared 700 Years of Cruelty

The bridge at Stamford from which bulls were heaved into the river
The bridge at Stamford from which bulls were heaved into the river

by Ray Setterfield

November 13, 1839 — If you are lucky enough to own a castle you want to enjoy the fine views on offer from the ramparts. That, according to legend, is just what William Plantagenet de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey (1166-1240), was doing one day at the turn of the 12th century.

Looking over the meadow stretched before him outside the town of Stamford he saw two bulls fighting over a cow. Local butchers then came with their dogs to part the animals, enraging them further and causing one to run off and stampede through the town.

It is said that men, women and children were being tossed about by the angry bull, a spectacle much enjoyed by the earl who had followed on horseback to see what was going on.

It brought him so much pleasure, in fact, that he hit on the idea of giving to the town’s butchers the meadow where it had all started, provided they agreed to have another bull-run every year.

The story is almost certainly mythical, but it is a fact that a bull-run, which began in Stamford all those years ago, continued every November for 700 years.

A description of the event was published in 1646 by Richard Butcher in his Survey And Antiquity Of The Town Of Stamford:

Their bull running is a sport of no pleasure, except to such as take a pleasure in beastlyness and misschief. The butchers of the town provide the wildest bull they can get [and] proclamation is made by the common 'bell-man' of the town that each one shut their shop-doors and gates.

Which proclamation made and all the gates are shut up, the bull is turned loose and then, hivie, skivy, tag and rag, men, women and children of all sorts and sizes, with all the dogs in the town promiscuously running after him with their bull-clubs spattering dirt in eachothers faces that one would think them to be so many Furies started out of Hell.

Another report, published in Chambers, recorded: “One great object [was to] 'bridge the bull.' The animal was, if possible, compelled to run upon the town’s river bridge. The crowd then closing in, with audacious courage surrounded and seized the animal; and, in spite of its size and strength, by main force tumbled it over the parapet into the river.

“The bull then swimming ashore, would land in the meadows, where the run was continued; the miry, marshy state of the fields at that season of the year, and the falls and other disasters consequent thereon, adding greatly to the amusement of the mob.”

Another account listed some of the more barbaric techniques of the “bullards” for goading a docile or tired bull. They had “sawn off his horns, cut off his tail, fired a train of gunpowder along his back, and poured aqua fortis on the same.” Firecrackers were also mentioned.

At the end of the day the bull would be killed and roasted, providing a bull-beef supper for people in the crowd.

Even in the days when barbarity was widely considered acceptable, troubled voices were raised and in 1788 the Mayor and Town Corporation gave notice of intent to put down “a custom of such unparalleled cruelty to an innocent animal, and in all respects a Disgrace to Religion, Law, and Nature.”

It would be another 51 years, though, before the townspeople could be persuaded to give up their “sport”, the last bull-run coming in 1839. Even then, it took detachments of the 14th Light Dragoons and 200 special police constables to control the situation.

Today, the cruel spectacle has been replaced with the Stamford Georgian Festival, featuring bull floats, performances and fireworks displays.

Published: October 6, 2019

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