Sparse information is readily available for royal mounts such as the magnificent red stag, demanding an investigation worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
These racks evoke a number of questions: Who was the hunter, and what was going through his mind as he took aim? Where was this glorious beast roaming – Scotland or Germany or perhaps Austria? What was used for the kill, a bullet or an arrow?
Likewise, the elaborate plaques that accompany royal mounts have their own stories to tell. The skill of the master craftsman is evident in the hunting horn, noble crest, and upon the cross, the likeness of the crucified Christ.
Clues are few and far between: The cover of a recent issue of Architectural Digest showed dozens of royal mounts adorning the paneled walls of a famous fashion designer’s baronial estate, for instance.
One woman who has made a profession out of royal mounts is Suzanne Coppola, who travels the world in search of wonderful treasures to curate as home decor for her spectacular gallery, Laurier Blanc, in Houston. In the coup of a lifetime, Suzanne was chosen to sell 465 royal mounts, many from Eckartsau Castle (Scholss Eckartsau), an imperial hunting lodge from 1720 until the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. Among the mounts were Habsburg red stag and fallow deer, and the most magnificent racks incorporated the St. Hubertus cross. Stag hunting in Scotland remains the sport of kings and queens today.
Stag hunting has been chronicled since the Early Middle Ages, when the sons of Merovech, known as the long-haired kings, ruled the Merovingian Dynasty in Neustrasia, as Western Europe was then called. In those days, forests throughout the British Isles and Northern Europe were essentially preserves that were bound politically, legally, and regionally to the king and nobility. The Royal Forest was the king’s private preserve.
In the 15th century, King Henry VIII of England, whose lust for hunting as a young man was as voracious as his appetite for food later in life, decreed the entire lower half of Britain as his Royal Forest. Only royalty and nobility were permitted to hunt game in the Royal Forest. Peasants and serfs were held to the letter of Forest Law, which was strictly observed and enforced – and if violated, bore terrible consequences. Poachers caught snaring a rabbit would be imprisoned for years in fetid jails and many died, while a man condemned for killing a deer always did.
Even in desperate times of famine and hardship — captured in folklore by Robin Hood and his Merry Men — Forest Law was upheld and changed little over the course of a thousand years. In 1851, fifteen years into the reign of Queen Victoria, the Court of Justice Seat, the highest of the Forest Courts, was abolished. Still, aristocrats and wealthy landowners continued to impose hefty fines, and oftentimes severe and cruel punishments, upon poachers — right up until World War I.
Entwined with Forest Law was the Law of Animals, edicts that likewise protected venison — the word, in those days, meaning all wild game, not just deer. Animals of the Forest protected by this law were hart, hind (red deer), hare, boar, which became extinct in the wild by the 13th century, and wolf, which vanished by the late 15th century. Beasts of the Chase or noble animals were buck and doe (fallow deer), fox, marten and roe deer. Beasts and Fowls of Warren were hare, coney (rabbit), pheasant, partridge and other gamebirds.
Stag hunting indeed is the sport of kings and queens. You may have seen the 2006 movie The Queen, starring Helen Mirren. There is a scene when the queen, in a moment of distress, encounters in an almost spiritual moment an imperial stag at Balmoral in Scotland, the private hunting estate of the royal family. An Imperial is the “royalty of the forest” with 16 or more points to his rack, evenly divided between the two antlers.
Perhaps you are familiar with Monarch of the Glen, a must-see British television series that aired from 2000 to 2005 and is still available on demand. Filmed at Ardverikie in Scotland, the romance-comedy takes place at a highland estate where fishing and stag hunting supports the livelihood of the family that has lived there for more than 400 years.
Stag hunting in Scotland is on the bucket list of every big game hunter — but going on a stag hunt is not for the faint of heart. Plan on at least five grueling days and be prepared for walking on the heather, which is like walking on a coil-spring mattress, and often difficult weather. You need to be an expert shot, and the gun you shoot can easily cost upward of $30,000. Licenses, accommodations, transportation, and fees will easily cost around $20,000 — and that’s not counting your gun, gear, and clothes. Most importantly, choose your guide carefully. And don’t get your hopes up – chances are, you will never see, let alone take, an Imperial.