A research project at the University of Nottingham has revealed that it was once commonplace for bears to be kept in the town’s local pub, where they were used for sporting entertainment. The revelation came to light during an episode of Channel 5’s ‘No Place Like Home’ when Dr Liam Lewis, Research Fellow in Animal History, met actor and comedian Ben Miller. The star was born in Nantwich and was revisiting the town to learn more about its past.
Dr Lewis explained that, during the Early Modern period, bears travelled around the country to fight in town squares and baiting arenas. In 1583, a great fire swept through Nantwich. As the inhabitants of the town tried to put out the fire, the residents of the Bear Inn released bears into the streets—presumably because they were too precious and expensive to leave and risk them perishing in the fire.
Ben was surprised to hear that there were once bears running through the streets that he ran through as a young child. Bear baiting was, by modern standards, a horrible industry, but in Elizabethan England it rivalled even the theatres. It puts the quote, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear…’ from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in a very different light!
Dr Lewis’ research is part of the AHRC-funded ‘Box Office Bears’ project at the University of Nottingham, which explores the history of animal baiting in England during the early modern period. The project has revolutionised the understanding of baiting and continues to challenge the current orthodoxy about the relationship between baiting and the theatre playhouses. It has also provided a new medium for the examination of gender roles, entertainment and human-animal relationships in the early modern period.
Hannah O’Regan, Professor of Archaeology and Palaeoecology at the University of Nottingham, is the principal investigator on the project: “Our collaborative project with the Universities of Oxford and Roehampton is exploring the life of animals in Shakespeare’s England. We had an unusual, perhaps unique, opportunity to bring together a series of archaeological finds on Bankside in London—of bones and building remains—with letters, diaries and court documents that directly to relate to animals at this time. Through our analyses we’re uncovering the lives of bears and dogs and the people who lived alongside them. This is strengthening the histories we tell about animal cruelty, entertainment practice, and the social world of the Tudors and Stuarts.”
The Nantwich episode of ‘No Place Like Home’ featuring Ben Miller is available to watch on catchup on My5.