The History of Falconry in Denmark, Norway and Iceland

Adaptation of a text by C. F. Tillisch by Jakob E. Borch.

WHEN HAWKING began in Denmark, we do not know, but it is on record that Rolf Krake, who lived in the 6th century, and his men, when on their visit to King Adils in Uppsala each carried a falcon on his shoulder. Archaeological findings support this. Remains of hawks are found is the graves of men of importance from the Viking-age.
     'Their haufdu Hauka sina a oxlom.'  ('They had hawks on their shoulders')
     'Rolf Krakes Saga', chap.. XL

   Furthermore it is told, that 100 mark in gold and 60 hunting falcons of hawks composed the yearly taxes, Hakon Jarl had to pay Harald Blåtand (d. 985) for that part of Norway, that was transferred to him. The tax was paid in advance for the first three years, but later only partly. On account of this tax Harald Blåtand used to call Norway for his 'Hauk-ei' (hawk or falcon island).
     We can see from different tax-regulations, that hawking was of some importance in this country; but since the middle-ages it does not seem as if it has been pursued with the same zeal as in other countries.


Seal of Knud the Holy

The Seal of Knud (Canute) the Holy, 1040-1086

     Knud (Canute) the Holy (1040-1086) is by Saxo Grammaticus mentioned as a competent falconer. His seal is seen above and as background on this page. Saxo furthermore writes about Valdemar the Great (1157-1182) that he was a zealous falconer, so he must have had an extensive falconry. Valdemar Atterdag (1340-1375) wasn't backward in that respect neither.
     The next we hear is that Frederik the Second (1559-1588) October the 13th, 1571 has appointed Niels Ulfstand of Barsebäck to be chief falcon master, and that a falconry has been founded, but it only existed a year and a half on account of Ulfstand's incapacity.
     In 1662 Crown prince Christian, the later Christian the Fifth (1670-99), was sent on a travel around Europe. He went to Holland, England and France. In France he stayed for quite some time at the court of the young Louis the fourteenth. He regularly took part in both parforcehunts, and hunts with falcons. Inspired by what he learned at the French court, in the years following his return to Denmark, a deer park with a hunting lodge for parforce hunting, and a small falconry was established: Queen Sophie Amalie, Queen of Christian the Third had a trapping house built already in 1664 near what is presently known as Frederiksberg Runddel in Copenhagen, about 2 km Southwest of the address of the later falconry. The falconry itself is not mentioned until later, but was founded at the present Falkonerallé No 114 B in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, in "Jægerhuset", later renamed to "Falkonergaarden". Here it remained until it was abolished in 1810.
"Falkonergaarden". Drawing by J. L. Ridter, 1900.
     There were accommodations for the staff, also for the hunters and hounds, for the owls, poultry, crows and of course for the hawks and falcons. During the reign of Christian the fifth the falconry was allowed to keep 20 hawks at the most. Later, this number appears to have been increased. Thus, in 1735 there were as many as 31 - the greatest number ever recorded. All were peregrines and gerfalcons - most Greenlanders. In 1791 it was decided that only 12 hawks were to be kept at the falconry. In the final years before the falconry was abolished the number of hawks decreased considerably. Between 1806 there were only four hawks left. In January 1807 one of these died, and during the British navy's bombardment of Copenhagen September 2nd 1807, when there were other matters to be thought of, two died from want of food, so only one was left, which was even said to be an eagle.
     There was appointed a master of the hunt, a master-falconer, and from four to six lads and boys. Not everyone could become a falconer. To be employed you had to be physically healthy, have a calm temper, posses a willingness to learn and be fairly intelligent. Applicants also had to speak German or Dutch, perhaps French, have a sense for economical matters, and be able to get around servants of foreign courts, if they were to be appointed to deliver falcons to foreign nobilities. Also the nationality of the applicants to the positions was not without significance. Leading positions were usually held by Dutch falconers. Finally, family ties to officers of the falconry also played a role.
     There was very often disagreements among the staff in the falconry, presumably on account of the bad terms for promotion in the little department. The so-called boys could be rather old, thus one of them had served for 17 years.
     All that was spent in the reign of Christian the Fifth was a thousand 'daler' yearly, later it was 1300 'daler'. (1 pound equal about 9 daler). But besides this, there were the expenses for the catching of the falcons and their transportation from Iceland; and here we have later on the accounts for the years from 1746 to 1755 (10 years). For this whole period 16.736 'rigsdaler' 69 'skilling' were paid for the freight of the falcons from Iceland, their food, and their transportation to foreign princes; we have also the accounts from 1760 to 1769 in which years the corresponding sum amounted to 18.093 'rigsdaler' 95 'skilling'.
     Neither kites nor herons were hunted, but crows, magpies and hares in the vicinity of Lyngby and Jægersborg in the neighbourhood of Copenhagen, and falcons were used to prevent the partridges form taking wing.
     There was also hare hunting on the commons near Copenhagen. The hares were as a rule caught the day before on the isle of Amager, thus on December 4th 1771 that is known to be the last time that Christian the Seventh (1766-1808) and Caroline Mathilde both took part in a hunt. In May 1772 Christian the Seventh attended five falcon-hunts within a few days of each other; this was the last hawking on the common and from this day it died out by degrees. The last hunt with royal participance in Denmark was in March 1803 in honour of Duke William of Gloucester's visit.


Queen Sofie Amalie and a boy-servant with a Greenland-falcon on fist

Artist unknown to me, 17th cent.
Sofie Amalie, Queen of Frederik III
Oil on canvas
The Museum in Frederiksborg


But even if hawking was of no great importance here, Denmark and Norway were well known and far-famed for their catching and their gifts of falcons (present-falcons).
     Hakon den Gamle of Norway (1204-1263) was the first northern King, who made presents of falcons to foreign sovereigns, thus a considerable amount of goshawks, and later on Icelandic gerfalcons were sent from Norway and Iceland to England.
     In the 18th century at least five shipments of falcons were sent to the Emperor of Morocco, and negotiations concerning similar shipments to Tripoli were conducted by the Danish king.
     Some hundred years later we hear that Christian the Fourth (1588-1648), who in one source is mentioned to be the first King who made presents of falcons on a greater scale, gave his brother-in-law James the First of England and Scotland 24 falcons every year. James the First was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Darnley, and married to Christian the Fourth's sister Anna. He is mentioned as being "amongst English Monarchs the chief patron of falconry".
     Christian the Fourth got the falcons partly by getting them caught and partly by buying them of the customhouse officers from the costoms of the Sound, who got them from the passing ships.
     It was especially in the 17th and 18th century, that these gifts increased. On the condition that no eyesses should be caught, and that the King should have the right of pre-emption, the King let the so-called falcon-stations (Falkelejer) in Denmark, Norway and in the south of Sweden to foreigners, thus in Norway to the falconers from Valkenswaard, who in the course of several years took 100 to 170 falcons home every year against a yearly tax of about 500 rigsdaler and two tiercels to the King. Also foreign princes; the German Emperor, different Dukes of Brunsvig and Lüneburg, and the Prince of Orange (William the Third) obtained the right af catching falcons in Norway in the period 1665 to 1680.


Later on we see that the Royal falconer Verhagen leased the right in Norway until 1772 for 600 to 700 rigsdaler yearly; but as he gradually suffered losses, the set price was reduced by degrees to 100 and later to 50 rigsdaler, until at last it quite ceased. The losses were partly owing to the fact, that the government, without taking the once given license into consideration, also gave foreign princes the right to catch falcons in the same places, and partly too because the interest for hawking was cooling in Europe.
     In 1734 when Linné (Linneaus) was travelling from Dalarne (in Sweden) to Norway, he came across a couple of the huts used for falcon-catching near Fämundsöen, which lies near to the frontier, a little to the south of Röraas. The falconers he met, were to his great annoyance only Dutchmen and Frenchmen ('fransos'), they came at the end of July and left again at St. Bartholomew's Day (August the 24th).

Linné writes:

'The camp is build high up in the hills where the widest space is to be found among the high mountains. Here a little convex place is chosen, so that the falcon can see it from where ever he flies about in the mountains.'

     As Linné describes it, the method of catching is that used by the Dutch, with the great grey shrike (Lannius excubitor), which is used as a sentinel to give notice of the approach of a hawk.
     There were 'falcon stations' in Halsnæs near Issefjord, Od's district, the 'King's meadow' in the neighbourhood of Copenhagen, and near Rødby in Lolland. There were also 'falcon-stations' in the Duchies Slesvig and Holstein and in Femern, several places in Scania, thus Lillehammer near Falsterbo is mentioned several times, and furthermore in the neighbourhood of Falkenberg and 'Strandgården' near Halmstad in Halland, in Blekinge and in Gotland and many in Norway; for example in Dovre, Hardanger and Rörås besides several others.
     The peasants often teased the falcon-catchers and spoilt their catching-gear. In 1742 and 1756 the chief falcon-master C. C. Gram requested the superior magistrate to ensure quiet about the falcon-huts near Hvidovre and the 'Flaskekroen' near Copenhagen and to forbid the peasants to come nearer to the huts than 1000 paces, by day and by night.
     15 falcons were caught every year for the falconry, especially in Od's district; this regular catching stopped in 1791. In 1808 only four were caught.

The Iceland Falcon:

The Iceland falcon was not protected by law; as late as November 1913 there was even a law declaring it unprotected, but as Dr. Vedel Taaning informs us in 'Birds of Denmark', a law of protection was enacted thanks to the perseverance of P. Nielsen, Eyrarbakki. The law was in force until 1930 and in 1919 the number of hatching pairs was estimated to be about 100, but the protection involved a rise to such an extent, that the number in 1931 was estimated to be 1 pair in every 60 to 79 square km of the inhabited western part of Iceland.
     Horrebow writes in 1752, that in his time nearly every nest was known throughout Iceland. Nests are found in the lowlands, but thu bulk of the nesting birds are found in the mountainous parts, especially in the north-western part of the country.


The Royal Coat of Arms

The Iceland Falcon is seen in the Coat of Arms
of Danish kings in the times before
Iceland gained independence of Denmark
(Lowest left corner)

     Dr. Finnur Gudmundson from the Reykjavik Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland, has given information about the fate of the Iceland falcons between 1939-1950 after the cessation of the law of protection. From this year the number of falcons was very much reduced, and it was necessary to reinforce the law in 1940, but unfortunately it does not seem, as if this had any influence in the stock in this period. Perhaps because of the great irregularity in the stock of ptarmigan.
     The mink, that from time to time escapes from mink farms, has spread in an alarming manner in the later years, especially over the south-western part of the country, where it finds ideal holes in the lave, but it is also found in the north-western part of Iceland.
     In the late1940's there were a premium of 100 Iceland kroner for every slayed mink, but despite of this there were no noticeable limitation in the spreading of the vicious imported animal.
     The Icelanders themselves used to catch falcons and sell them to anybody who would buy them, until Christian the Fourth forbade this trading to strangers without Royal concession. Some years later Frederik the Third was obliged to enforce this regulation; only foreign princes were allowed to catch falcons in Iceland.

The Iceland Expeditions:

At the end of the 17th century the trading with falcons in Iceland was reserved for the King, who from 1690 sent up a ship every year to fetch falcons. There was always a falconer with this ship. The ship cast anchor at midsummer-time in Bessastadir (formerly the property of Snorre Sturlason) in the vicinity of Reykjavik, where the King's falcon-hut stood until 1818. The falcon-catchers came here on horseback each bringing 10 to 12 falcons, all with hoods on their heads; the falconer then bought them at a fixed price and brought them to Copenhagen.
     The white Greenland falcon was the most prized, but it was also the most scarce. It came with the ice from Greenland; in those years when there was no ice, it failed to come.
     In 1771 no less than 51 white falcons were caught, the general number was otherwise from 4 to 6. Very often 150 were sent off at a time, white, half white and grey. In 1764 the number was even 210. As this was rather too many, the purchases were reduced to 100 grey, but as many white and half-white as they could get:

'because the Iceland falcons, that heretofore have been so renowned in the whole world, and that also have been a special prerogative for His Majesty above all other puissance's, to be able to make presents of them to emperors, kings and princes, should not become too common, and thus lose their hitherto good credit, which will surely be the case, as the number of buyers are much reduced in later years, and falcon-catching on the contrary has increased rather too much.'

Later on the number was reduced to 60-70.

The Falcon ships:

The falcons that were sent off in the first half of August remained on board under the deck, where they sat with the falcon-hoods on, in two rows on each side of the ship, while precautionary measures were taken so as to prevent them from being injured when the ship rolled.
     It was necessary to provide the amount of oxen and sheep for the maintenance of the falcons during their voyage which could last for seven weeks; at times it was rather difficult to get these animals in Iceland, so it was sometimes even necessary to bring the cattle and the fodder for the long voyage, from Copenhagen.
     It was not trifles that were consumed, in 1764 when 210 falcons were brought to Denmark: 72 oxen, 339 sheep and 65 lambs were consumed in Iceland and during the voyage.
The Greenland and Iceland falcons were everywhere considered to be the best, because they could be used as long as 12 years, while the others could only last from one to two years. Only the lanner was just as durable, but it was smaller. In later years we have nevertheless examples, that the peregrine falcon can last from 15 to twenty years; the same is the case with the goshawk.
     When the ship arrived in Copenhagen from Reykjavik in the beginning of September, three or four falcons were chosen for the Royal falconry, while the others, that were not trained, were divided according to a list approved by the King as gifts to many European princes; falcons were only given to very few private persons.

Falcons and Foreign Politics:

In 1764 the above mentioned 210 falcons were divided as follows:


  • 50 to the French King
  • 30 to the German Emperor
  • 60 to the King of Portugal
  • 20 to the Landgrave of Hessen
  •  2 to the French Ambassador
  •  3 was kept by the King

the remaining 45 were killed.
     To France the transmissions stopped only a few months before the execution of Louis the Sixteenth. The falconry in Versailles was abolished in 1793. The last time the German Emperor received presents was in 1792. The transmissions to the Prussian King, Frederik the Great, were suspended since he in 1742 gave the falcons he had received, to the Duchess of Anspach. The last time the Emperor of Morocco received falcons was in 1798 and the Portuguese court in 1806.
     Such gifts were never sent to Sweden, perhaps owing to political reasons or perhaps because they could supply themselves; but the Swedish court got dogs from the Danish.
     No less than fifty different courts, received these presents in the 18th century. Moreover it shall just be mentioned, that Count Warberg, governor in Erfurt, received two falcons both in 1753 and 1754 in return for supplying the court with eagle-owls.
     The interest which the foreign princes showed for these gifts of falcons from the Danish Kings was so great, that it is very probable, that these gifts have not been without political significance.

The Transport to the Foreign Courts:

Before sending the falcons to foreign courts, the chief-falconer took a feather from each of the birds, and this was sent by special messenger to the recipient so as to prevent him getting an inferior falcon instead of that one, which was intended for him.
     The falcons were sent by ship with Danish falconers to Lübeck, they were then carried to their places of destination. The regular transports of falcons from Iceland to Denmark stopped in 1793, later on they only came now and then, the last time in 1806.
     The chief falcon-master and the falconers, who were sent with the falcons, had the King's consent to receive costly presents and rich gratuities from the recipients of the presents. amongst others, the King of France and the German Emperor.
     There exists a list of the presents chief falcon-master Gram the younger received:


  • 1746 from the Prince of Wales: a snuffbox, and his wife two small dogs.
    1752 from the Duke of Anspach: a cruet-stand of silver for his daughter's wedding.
    1753 from the Duke of Anspach: a snuffbox of gold.
    1755 from Portugal: six bars of gold.
    1759 from the Duke of Anspach: two tureens and two cruet-stands, all of silver.
    1761 from Portugal: six bars of gold.
    1761 from the Duke of Anspach: two tureens and two cruet-stands, all of silver.
    1763 from the Duke of Richmond: three horses.

     The King got presents too, but not so many. The German Emperor sent him every year some casks of Tokay wine. In 1783 he received two Morocco falcons from Mohammed Ben Abd-Allah of Morocco in return for some falcons the King had sent him. Besides these falcons the King received a letter full of compliments, ending with the assurance of:

'...that the peace between us is on an avoidable footing.

         Ramadan the first 1198

Falconry in modern times:

Falconry have been practised continuously since the closure of the Royal Falconry, though never by more than a few people. Very little is known from the span of more than hundred years that passed before the first falconers club was formed, and certainly nothing is recorded.
     Iceland and Norway continued to serve as source of falcons for falconers around Europe. Shipment of hawks from Norway to British falconers, are mentioned by Jack Mavrogordato, and as late as in the 1940's and 1950's British falconer Ronald Stevens brought a jerkin (male gerfalcon) from Iceland and Jack Mavrogordato a goshawk from Norway back to Great Britain.

The 1960's and further:

Falconry became prohibited according the Hunting Act of 1967. The law contained a possibility of dispensation, but this was only granted on very few occasions. Thus, in the late 1980's politicians and civil servants of the administration witnessed Patrick Morel, Belgian falconer, and Eckart Schormair, then president of "Deutcher Falkenorden" flying their falcons, prior to the preparations of the Hunting and Game Administration Act of 1994. In 1970, on April 24th, 14 persons with an interest in falconry formed The Danish Falconer's Society (Dansk Falkonérselskab). Some were members of The Danish Birdwatchers Association (D.O.F.), and The Danish Hunters Association (Dansk Jagtforening). The members of the society watched the last hunt with hawks in Denmark in 1967 by the Arre Lake (Arresøen).
     Only a few of the original members were practical falconers. The rest was only interested in the historical aspects of falconry. This conflict of interests between falconers and bird watchers became evident later on, when the society intensified it's efforts to get falconry legalised. The Danish Birdwatchers Association made every effort to hinder this, and though the members of the society was very active, they didn't succeed when the new Hunting Act was prepared in the early 1990's. The Danish Falconer's Society ceased to exist in the spring of 1992, being abolished due to internal power struggles, which caused serious injury to the reputation of falconry in Denmark. In it's place, The Danish Hawking Club was formed. The club quickly established good relations with politicians and civil servants of the administration, and have earned reputation as a serious organisation.

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Jakob E. Borch ©