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British White Cattle - Ancient History

"In the forest laws of King Canute (A.D. 1014-1035), wild cattle are thus referred to: "There are also a great number of cattle which, although they live within the limits of the forest, and are subject to the charge and care of the middle sort of men, or Regardors, nevertheless cannot at all be reputed beasts of the forest as wild horses, bubali (wild bulls), wild cows, and the like."   Wild, White Cattle" (p.36) by James Edmund Harting (c.1880)

         The polled British White is not only descended from the original white park cattle, but all the original white park cattle, horned or polled, date back to the Bronze Age and beyond.  Most breeds of cattle can't be dated accurately before the 17th century.  This breed is an exception.  Thanks to the scholarly efforts of old we are able to look into the past and see this uniquely beautiful "hornless and tame variety of the wild white breed" grazing green pastures and filling a pale with abundant milk.   Please note that both the polled British White and the horned White Park can  have red ears and nose, etc...  The black points are predominant in British White and White Park herds, but the occasional perfectly marked red-eared animal is still born and is registered in both the British and the American associations.  The oldest references cited below speak of milk white cattle with red ears.  Given the rarity of this occurrence now and presuming it to have been equally rare in days of old, it is easily arguable that the very rarity of the red markings made them special and thus worthy of inclusion in the oral histories that have survived thousands of years. 

   PLEASE REMEMBER:  Until 1946 in the United Kingdom, all varieties of white park cattle with black or red points were referred to most generally as "park cattle".  So references in this work and in others to the "ancient wild, white park cattle" refer to all varieties of the breed until the formal separation in 1946 of the polled Park Cattle breeders into the British White Cattle Society.  The White Park Cattle Society in the UK was formed some time later.  Keep in mind that that 'wild' is not necessarily indicative of feral, but rather of freedom from human domestication and intervention.                      


         There are various statements as to how the white 'Park cattle' came to the British Isles; who brought them, if anyone; when they arrived; whether they are indigenous to the British Isles.  Those statements will be explored in the body of this work.  A little time spent with "HOW THE SUNGOD REACHED AMERICA" will enlighten anyone who is inclined to explore how far back in time man may have assisted the migrations of breeds of cattle in the world.  This highly interesting work should also be considered in the context of the ancient Druids that were integral to the ancient Celtic cultures of Britain, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and France - and whom some scholars believe are responsible for the building of Britain's Stonehenge and Ireland's Newgrange, and it is within ancient Druid tales that survived in remaining Celtic culture and customs that we find much mention of the milk white cow of ancient days that would be the forebears of the British White breed of today.       

         I suspect that many of the UK horned white park cattle with black or red points that cling to the White Park designation are milky, beefy, and docile, as is a polled British White, and I offer the opinion that if in fact the British White bears no genetic kinship with the ancient wild, white Chillingham cattle, yet the horned domesticated White Park animal does; then the ancient literature explored below is making reference to the polled white park animal we now know as British White, and firmly establishes their ancestral descent from  the earliest recorded domestic cattle breed in the British Isles.

         I've found no references thus far in ancient Celtic Bronze Age literary texts to the hunting of wild, "white cattle with red points", but rather to the milking, the grazing, the leading to slaughter of white cattle with red points that are obviously highly regarded livestock, and quite obviously docile either from domestication or by the innate nature of the animals. There are references to wild bulls in general, with no reference to color, as in the following:



" . . .and when the wild bull saw a man coming towards him he drove his horns into the ground, and put an acre of land over his own back."  Myths and Folklore of Ireland Fin MacCumbail and Gilla na Grakin 

          The earliest recorded mention of white cattle with red points is found in the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Tain), aka The Cattle Raid of Cooley.   "The Tain is considered the oldest vernacular epic in western European literature.  The earliest versions were written down in the Irish monasteries of Bangor in County Down and Dromsnat in County Monaghan in the eighth century" (1), but it had a long oral existence among the Celtics of Ireland before being committed to paper.
         Central to the story is 'a great white bull' or "white-horn"  that many sources cite as the wild horned variety of the breed now known as White Park.  However, besides the great white bull, there are many passages in The Tain that reference herds of domesticated milk white cattle with red points. For example, in a prelude story to 'The Tain'  we find the milking of 'three white cows with red ears'.  If in fact the horned  White Park is genetically distinct from the polled British White, then I would contend that the milk white cows with red ears referred to in this passage and many others of The Tain, are in fact the docile, polled British White animal we know today.   Also of interest in discussion of The Tain, is the fact that it is the Dun bull that was ferocious and killed many in their attempts to contain him, not the great White bull.  The great White bull was killed by the Dun bull, in a geographic context that implies domestication.         

         "Historians are increasingly of the view that behind the 'The Tain' are real events, in particular the advance of the Gaelic conquerors from Connaught against the pre-Gaelic rulers of Ulster."(1)  Further, it is now believed that the Celts migrated to the British Isles long before 500 BCE, thus this battle could have taken place many centuries prior.  If that is the case, then the events being referred to in this story place the "great  white bull" and the "white cows with red ears" in existence in the British Isles well more than 2500 hundred years ago.

           There are many other references in ancient texts that speak of the "hornless and tame variety of the wild white breed"  we now call British White.  The earliest mention of them is by the Celtics, as in the  Cattle Raid of Cooley  mentioned above and other Druidic tales where the milk-white cow and bullocks figure prominently.  There were also certain divination rituals of the Druids (Celtic priesthood explored below)  that  required the sacrifice of white bulls that found their way from oral legend into print. The following  is an example and one can easily infer they were domesticated, tame 'milk-white' bulls : 

Joey spring 2015.JPG

         "When the new year approached, the Druids beset themselves to discover this plant (mistletoe) upon an oak, on which tree it they marched by night with great solemnity towards the spot, inviting all to join their procession with these words: The New Year is at hand: let us gather the mistletoe.

         First marched the Ovades in their green sacrificial robes leading two milk-white bullocks. Next came the bards singing the praises of the Mighty Essence, in raiment blue as the heavens to which their hymn ascended. Then a herald clothed in white with two wings drooping down on each side of his head, and a branch of vervain in his hand encircled by two serpents. He was followed by three Derwydd--one of whom carried the sacrificial bread--another a vase of water-and the third a white wand. Lastly, the Arch-Druid, distinguished by the tuft or tassel to his cap, by the bands hanging from his throat, by the scepter in his hand and by the golden crescent on his breast, surrounded by the whole body of the Derwydd and humbly followed by the noblest warriors of the land." 

"An altar of rough stones was erected under the oak, and the Arch-Druid, having sacramentally distributed the bread and wine, would climb the tree, cut the mistletoe with a golden knife, wrap it in a pure white cloth, slay and sacrifice the bullocks, and pray to God to remove his curse from barren women, and to permit their medicines to serve as antidotes for poisons and charms from all misfortunes."       Mysteries of the Druids (1861) W. Winwood Reade

         The origins of druidism have been argued about for centuries.  In Julius Ceasar's writings we find "The Druidic doctrine is believed to have been found existing in Britain. . ."(Caesar, De Bellum Gallico, book 6).  He gave us a picture of Celtic life in the last century BC that is dominated by the Druids.  There are statements from some sources that the Romans "exterminated" the Druids, and the final battle was at Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey Island, Wales . They weren't completely exterminated as there is mention of them in 4th century accounts of Christianizing Ireland.  [Some sources state that the Roman's brought the white 'park cattle' to the British Isles, but others indicate the only cattle used by the Romans were dark  breeds.  From the ancient oral stories of the Druids, we know the white cattle were present before the arrival of the Romans.]  Most scholars now believe that the Druids were present before the arrival of the Celts, and that they are the pre-historic, indigenous inhabitants of Britain.  Celts were at one time a pervasive culture in Western Europe, yet the importance of the Druids and their sacred white cattle is largely unique to Ireland, Wales, Britain, and France, which is pertinent to the discussion of whether the white cattle with red points were indigenous to the British Isles.  When the Celts came to the British Isles they adopted the religious customs and rites of the native Druids. The unifying bond between all the Celtic tribes was their common priesthood, the Druids. Their efforts preserved common culture, religion, history, laws, scholarship, and science. They were a separate social class of the highest standing in Celtic society, which no doubt made them a target of the Romans.  With the onset of Christianity, druidism was not acceptable; it was viewed as pagan.  Nonetheless, many aspects of druidism were incorporated into Christianity to appease the Celtic people, and they remain part of organized religion today. 

Below are some interesting excerpts from ancient texts that further describe the white cattle and establish their existence and their domestication for millennia:
        ". . . she milked the three white cows with red ears." Cuchulain of Muirthemne (Also part of The Tain)
        ". . . a perfectly white cow with red ears, and boil it down in a lump." Morgan's Frenzy
        ". . . insisted on getting seven hundred white cows with red ears. . ." The Progress of the Wicked Band
        ". . . when the milk-white bull with gilded horns. . ." The Georgics of Virgil (c.29 BCE)

          The cattle referred to in these passages are most likely the ancient ancestors of the domesticated British White herd of today.  Obviously, the cows referred to in the above quotes were not ferocious.  Also, one can surmise that they were not all horned.  The term "milk-white" is found several times in the ancient texts.  The best examples of cattle within the British White breed are milk-white.  Thus far, I've not found any text that mentions black ears, but also it is only rarely that there is mention of horns, and the horned White Park once had distinctive black-tipped horns, similar to those of the ancient Kerry breed, and one would think them worthy of mention by scholars of old. 

           Here is one additional passage from a lovely Welsh fairy tale that makes possible reference to the Dynevwr herd of white cattle that date back to the 10th century AD. 

        ". . . with the white bull from the court of the King . . . Dynevwr Castles. . ."  The Lady of the Lake

         Notice the reference is simply to a "white bull", no mention of the color points nor the horns.  Yet we know that in Wales the Dynevwr herd continues today, and it is white with colored points and considered a critical source for horned Ancient White Park genetics.  This lends support to the belief that the cattle referred to in the  passages cited are British White/White Park animals despite the fact that the references thus far found do not speak of black ears.  However,  the Dynevwr herd is now focused on breeding the horned Ancient White Park --  although there have been instances through the recent centuries of the Dynevwr herds existence of the use of polled white park sires (British White) in the herd.   Furthermore, the use of polled British White sires would produce polled offspring, as the polled gene is dominant in a cross with a horned gene,  which results in a percentage of offspring being subsequently polled, and it is certainly  possible that this would have occurred at Dynevwr.  Also, consider this additional Dynevwr reference, "From at least the tenth century white cattle were paid in tribute to the Welsh lord of Deheubarth (Deheubarth est. 920 A.D.) by those seeking his pardon."  Obviously, these were not feral (wild) white cattle being paid in tribute.

          Hadrian's Wall was built in the 2nd century AD by the Romans to establish a barrier between Roman Britain and the native Picts and Scots who lived in the northern highland areas of  Britain.  This wall established the southern boundary of what is known as the Caledonian Forest , from which many of the surviving herds of wild, white cattle originated.  Hadrian's Wall served to protect the Celtic culture and the native wildlife in northern Britain from the Romans, the Anglo-Saxon invaders, and later from the Norman's.  Rome abandoned Britain in the 5th century, and life in the British Isles was forever changed.  The breakdown of Roman law and civilization was fairly swift after the Roman army departed in 410 AD. To counter the raids from continental pirates, Picts and Scots towns would bring in mercenaries from Europe to defend them from attack. These mercenary soldiers were Angles and Saxons from northern Germany, who apparently rather liked  Britain, and they slowly colonized northwards and westwards, pushing the native Celts to the fringes of Britain.  Roman Britain was thus replaced by Anglo Saxon Britain, with the Celtic peoples remaining in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. (Anglo-Saxon Era Reference  Ireland was never conquered by the Romans and the evolution of this region's Celtic culture was not significantly influenced by other peoples until the onset of Viking raids in the 9th century AD.



         Some British White history pages speculate that the breed was introduced to the British Isles by the Vikings in the 8th or 9th century.  Vikings from Denmark and Sweden came to the British Isles in overlapping time-frames between the 8th and 12th centuries. They came first as raiders and slavers, later as settlers and farmers, and lastly as traders.  By the beginning of the 10th century there were established Viking settlements in Wales and other regions of the British Isles. Considering the previously explored ancient Druid descriptions of milk-white cows with red ears that mirror the early 13th century description of the Dynevwr herd, and the fact that the ancient Druid legends of Ireland were written down in the 8th century,  prior to the onset of the Viking raids in Ireland, it is my opinion that this is incorrect.

          In 1066 AD the Normans invaded Britain and William the Conqueror was declared King.  This event marks the beginning of the period referred to as the Middle Ages.  The existing Anglo-Saxon nobility were stripped of their land and their rank and the new king granted land to new nobles, including higher churchmen such as bishops and abbots.  "  In 1079, William "afforested"  the area (brought it under Forest Law). In common with other large areas within the country, Forest Law imposed a kingdom within a kingdom, where the few inhabitants were subjected to draconian laws to preserve, increase and protect game of all species. Twenty-one Forests were established by William." He justified his actions by claiming it was a continuation of Anglo Saxon tradition that the forests were for the pleasure of the King.  The Anglo Saxon King Canute did claim some forest as the crown's, but nothing so vast as that clamed by William.  Some historians tell us that many entire villages were wiped out by William in the establishment of Forest Law. 

". . . in the formation of which he (William) is said by Odericus Vitalis, "to have laid waste more than sixty parishes, compelling the inhabitants to emigrate to other places, and substituting beasts of the chase for human beings, that he might satisfy his ardour for hunting." The Ancient History of Sherwood Forest

Cows at First Hay.jpg

          But at the same time other sources indicate 'common inhabitants' of this forest were allowed to turn their livestock out into the 'waste' as they were not allowed to build walls that might obstruct the free roam of the King's game.  The culture, the people, and the forests of Wales and modern-day Scotland were again largely protected from the Norman pillage thanks to Hadrian's Wall (122 AD) to the north that continued to establish a protective boundary for modern-day Scotland and Offa's Dyke (est. 9th century) to the west that separated Wales from Southern England.

". . . All of them were milk white except for their red ears."  The Barons de Brause  (early 13th century)

         These forests abounded with  wildlife, and it is said the new Norman nobility secured the boundaries of their land "within a pale, haye, or wall", with the game and wild animals they contained, or with others driven in, and these enclosures became parks.  Within the native mix of wildlife in these parks were herds of cattle so wild they were hunted as game.  By the early 16th century we learn from Boece's (1516) observations that were "wild, white" cattle in the forests as well.  It is from these "ferocious" wild, white park cattle that were the object of the hunt that the best examples of the wild and horned Ancient White Park of today has most likely descended.  The Chillingham herd remains in it's native habitat today, though it's lost much of the distinctive red points that are so desirable in the breed, based upon the photos displayed on the White Park Cattle Society web site -- no doubt to excessive inter-breeding.  In the USA, the BBar Ranch has a herd of Ancient White Park with black points.  If you look closely at photos of both herds and open your mind, you will see the that they are of a distinctly different character than the polled British White, and they are said to have a wild nature and a lengthy flight zone.   Obviously, these were not the white cows with red points that ancient literature holds in such high regard, or the white cows with red ears of the 10th to13th century discussed above.  These wild, white cattle most certainly could not be yoked to a plow or milked, or easily herded to a new owner in payment of tribute or debt.  In no way do they reflect a character of ancient domestication. 


         As to why the different varieties of white 'park cattle' roamed wild in the forests of Britain in the late Middle Ages we can only speculate.  Many events in history could provide explanation --  the extermination of the Druids who raised and revered them; the quashing of the Celtic culture in much of Britain;  or perhaps  there is some old kernel of truth in this Welsh fairy tale about a magical milk-white cow and the disappearance of her and her "particoloured" offspring into the dark waters of a lake.   It's apparent in recorded history that the wild, white cattle were never present in large numbers as compared to the wild aurochs until the early 16th when we find the first clear reference to their presence in the old forests of Britain by Boece. 


         It is of the greatest reasonableness to assume that ancient domesticated polled white cattle with black and red points were bred in the wild of the large emparked areas of the 11th century and onwards by the wild bulls of the forest, which may or may not have been the true aurochs.  Aurochs disappeared from Europe by the the 17th century.  The emparking in the Middle Ages of the acreage of several thousand Anglo-Saxon holdings into a mere 20 (verify number) or more baronial and church estates, is perhaps the most important even in British history that lost to us much culture and custom, and certainly had great impact on existing domesticated cattle herds of the time.  This would be just yet another instance where the passage of time and devastating international events contrives to almost lose to us some of our rarer moments and species.  British White cattle are  perhaps the most docile breed of beef cattle on the earth, many having no flight zone from humans.  At times it seems almost magical.    

Docs Gal and Heifer Jan 2015.jpg

Despite these historical events, in the course of time from the 11th century to 16th century Britain, the British White breed continued to be revered as evidenced by this passage:

         ". . . on pain of forfeit for every penny . . . a white bull with red nose and red ears." 
Wroth Money - Ceremony at Knightlow Cross

         Also of interest here, is this is yet another reference to a white animal with red points many centuries after  their first mention in Druid legend.  This begs the question of why the black points dominate this breed today. This 'wroth money' ceremony was last performed on November 11, 1892 and it is believed to have been a tradition well more than a thousand years. (November 11, St Martin’s Day, is the eve of the old Celtic Samhain when the cattle were brought down from the hills for winter and the excess stock were slaughtered". ) We know that at different points in time the numbers of these cattle have been dangerously low and concerted efforts were made to preserve the breeds.  Could it be that the the herds with red points suffered more during periods of disease or drought merely by happenstance? Or could it be that the appearance of a white cow with red points was as equally rare in the Bronze Age and beyond as it is today, and thus they were singled out as special in the legends, traditions, and histories of old. 

          In Welsh stories the fairy cows are described as either white or speckled, so one can infer that they were white and speckled with another color.  British White cattle often have speckles of black spots across their shoulders.  Further, Mr. Harting gives us this old description of the Somerford herd  which includes ". . . Like all other old herds of the forest breed, they have a strong tendency to produce small black spots on the neck, sides, and legs, and this the proprietors admire and encourage; many of them have therefore become more or less speckled."

(1) BBC - The Cattle Raid of Cooley - Up to AD 200

Author's Note:  The opinions expressed in this work are mine at this writing.  As research into the history of the white cattle of the British Isles continues, this work will be updated to reflect any new information found or changes in opinion.

Copyright @ January 3, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2022  Jimmie Lynn West, All Rights Reserved, No representations in part or in whole may be reproduced or otherwise used without the express consent of the author - full credit attributed to the author. 

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