Perhaps you are thinking about having a Beagle, or you already have one and are curious to understand a little more about the history of the Beagle breed and how they came to be the merry hounds and family companions we all cherish and love.
Beagles are a very old dog breed, which makes dating their exact origins difficult. What we do know is that modern-day beagles likely lived in England during the Roman Empire era, possibly even before that. Beagles became popular with the rise of fox hunting, and records and paintings show the beagle to be much smaller than their modern-day cousins, often carried in the hunters pocket.
Beagles through the ages
Beagles are loving, independent, strong-willed, cuddly hounds. However, to understand the Beagle breed and why they have the physical and personality characteristics we see today, we need to go back in time and know why they were bred.
Where Beagles originally came from is ambiguous, and while carrying out research for this post it became clear there are conflicting viewpoints on their origin. The following history I have pieced together includes detail where I have seen multiple sources sharing the same information, which suggests a particular point may be valid.
There is evidence to suggest that the Beagle’s ancestors originated as early as the 5th century from ancient Greece. Dogs similar size to the Beagle’s we know today were used for hunting.
The Talbot Hound
If we move forward 300 years, during the 8th century, in Normandy (now France/Belgium), a new breed was created called the Talbot Hound. The Talbot Hound was developed from a well-known breed during that time, called the St. Hubert Hound. This type of hound was used for hunting as it was a scent hound.
Some years later, during the 11th century, allegedly William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, brought back to England the Talbot Hound. Near to where I live in Derbyshire, England, we have a historic English Country House called Haddon Hall. There is a beautiful painting illustrating no other than a Talbot Hound.
The Southern Hound & North Country Beagle
One of the physical characteristics the Talbot Hound had inherited from the St. Hubert Hound was a slow runner due to its short legs. And so it is believed the Greyhound breed was bred with the Talbot Hound to increase its speed. This new breed was called the Southern Hound.
The Southern Hound was much taller and more substantial than Beagle’s we know today, and they had an excellent scenting ability. One physical characteristic they exhibited which we see today in Beagles, was long, soft floppy ears.
The North Country Beagle’s ancestry is less known and evidenced, compared to the Southern Hound. The breed originated from northern parts of England, within the counties of Yorkshire and Northumberland. It is possible the North Country Beagle originates from the pre-roman celts (British origin) and could be many centuries older than the Southern Hound, which was developed from french hounds as described above. This type of Beagle, smaller than the Southern breed, was used for hunting mainly deer, was much faster than the Southern Hound, but it’s scenting abilities were not as good.
During the 1700s, in England, both the Southern Hound and North Country Beagle were adapting well for hunting hare and rabbit. However, during this time fox hunting had become increasingly popular, mainly due to the decline in deer population during the 15th century, deer hunters instead made hare and foxes their prey of choice.
Along came the Foxhound which was previously used for hunting fox, again a hound that had an exceptional sense of smell with excellent endurance. In addition to the Foxhound was a smaller version, called the Harrier Hound. There is conflicting evidence to suggest the Harrier hound was a direct descendent from the Foxhound. This breed’s size was between a foxhound and a Beagle. Beagle’s were allegedly developed by a harrier hound mixed with the Southern Hound (as mentioned above) and back then were known as the ‘little harrier’.
During the 19th century, records show that Beagles were referred to with different but similar names, for example, the northern and southern hounds from the 11th century, or rough and smooth-coated Beagles. Although these descriptions existed, they were all described as having good noses, were fast and with sharp mouths but no real depth of tone.
In the mid-1800s the modern Beagle was starting to develop, the distinction between the southern and northern county Beagles had disappeared. However, there were still some differences in Beagles that existed during that period. John Henry Walsh, an English sportswriter, under the pseudonym “Stonehenge.” published in his Manual of British Sports (1861) the following varieties of Beagles: a medium beagle; the dwarf or lapdog beagle (aka ‘pocket Beagle’); the fox beagle (a smaller, slower version of the Foxhound); and the rough-coated or terrier Beagle.
As with many dog breeds during this time, there was always the threat of extinction. But lucky for us Beagle owners, the danger was beginning to diminish. With the establishment of the organisations Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, they protected the longevity of the Beagle and introduced a standard. By the early 20th century the number of packs in the UK had increased from 18 to 44.
Beagles arrive in the US
Again there are differing views on how Beagles were exported into the US. One account is that a group of Irish immigrants took their Kerry Beagles over to the US and this contributed to their development. Historically Kerry Beagles were different from the Beagles during that time and were similar to bloodhounds but smaller.
Other evidence suggests that it wasn’t until the early 1870s that a proper attempt to develop the American standard commenced. General Richard Rowett, a famous animal breeder and leading political figure of the nineteenth-century from Illinois imported some Beagles from England for breeding. Some 30 years later during 1885, the Beagle was accepted by the American Kennel Club (AKC).
Origin of the Beagle name
The word ‘Beagle’ has several theories relating to its origin. The French word ‘begueule’ means ‘open throat’ or ‘beugler’ means ‘to bellow’. Another theory present is the Gaelic word ‘beag’ means ‘small’. So there feels some truth in this, given that these words do describe some of the characteristics we see in our pet Beagles today.
The Beagle breed goes back a long way, a breed that most probably started out as a hunter, bred to serve a purpose through the ages but has now found a place in loving homes all around the world.
If you found this article interesting you might like this post about what it’s like to own a Beagle.