Tally Ho! Take a canter through the history of how the fox came to the attention of royalty

George Orwell once characterised England's traditional ruling classes as "foxhunting Tories". Yet how did they acquire that image?

For most of the previous 1,000 years the fox had actually been regarded as little more than a farmyard villain whose extermination was a job for the lower orders.

Not the least of reasons why the fox was held in such low esteem as a hunting quarry was that, even to the less refined tastes of medieval times, its flesh was unpalatable. And being vermin, hunting it was useful rather than heroic.

So the favourite game of kings and aristocrats was wild deer and boar, large animals that were perceived as having noble character and providing the richest feasts. These would be joined by pheasant, partridge and grouse when guns later came on the scene.

Ordinary people knew not to hunt for the rich prizes of their betters. For centuries, a series of draconian Game Laws protected the best game for landowners and their ilk. Any poacher who was found guilty of killing a deer might well be strung up from the nearest gallows. Little wonder, then, that commoners who developed a taste for country sports chose to hunt unprotected species such as badgers, otters, wildcats – and foxes.

And here's the irony. Lacking in status the fox might have been, but the lower classes found that foxes certainly did not lack excitement. Far from it. They provided much better sport than the relatively slow pursuit of deer and boar. And the hounds they used were smaller and faster than those used for large game, and capable of sustaining fast day-long chases over farmland for a large field of mounted huntsmen.

At the same time, the traditional hunting quarry of kings and noblemen was disappearing. Wild boar became extinct in Britain during the Middle Ages, although it recovered for a time after being reintroduced for hunting by James I and Charles I. The population of deer was also greatly reduced by hunting, especially in England.

Word about foxhunting began to spread, and by the end of the Tudor period, a writer noted that one could have "good pastime at this vermin". A handbook called The Experienc'd Huntsman, published in 1714, went further. Its author wrote that he "need not insist long upon endeavouring to recommend the Pleasure of Fox-hunting, it being much used by Kings, Princes, Noblemen, and Gentlemen; and it is certainly a brave noble Chace for such who keep good Horses and Hounds."

A recreation to rival the ancient sport of kings had been born, and the landed gentry adopted foxhunting as their principal pastime, later inspiring Oscar Wilde to describe the sport as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable".

The story of the fox's extraordinary transition from vermin to first-rate quarry, and of foxhunting from a blood sport that was the preserve of the working man to one that symbolised wealth and power, is told in a new book chronicling the history of hunting in Britain since the time of William the Conqueror.

Written by historian Emma Griffin, it identifies a country squire named Hugo Meynell as the man who made fox-hunting fashionable with the aristocracy. He had inherited his father's estate around Quorn in Leicestershire in the mid-18th century and begun to breed hounds for stamina and speed as much as for their nose.

By 1793, the then Prince of Wales had taken up fox-hunting, establishing the sport's blue blood appeal. Fine clothes soon became an essential part of the experience, and paintings of hunts from the period showed their participants wearing first blue and then red frock coats.

While still technically open to all, fox-hunting became socially exclusive with hunt subscriptions, dress codes and the custom of accepting new members only by invitation. From humble origins, foxhunting had become a high-status pursuit.

The foxhunts in their bright scarlet became a vivid symbol of one half of the class divide, and they were a continuation of a process that began as soon as William the Conqueror landed at Hastings. He named huge tracts of land as "royal forests" for hunting purposes, and prohibited the killing of all animals found there by all but the king's officers.

It was only in the 20th century that the whole structure was challenged. Land and power were not the issues that divided opinion about hunting. There was a new ideological argument, says Emma Griffin.

"Originally the preserve of freethinking vegetarians on the radical fringe, the view that there might be something wrong in making sport out of killing animals steadily drifted from the fringes to the mainstream."

And so the 2004 Hunting Act was passed, leaving foxhounds and their masters with the "drag hunt" – the pursuit of an artificial scent. But with blood sports never far from politics in the last 1,000 years, it's likely that the story is far from over.

Blood Sport: Hunting in Britain since 1066 by Emma Griffin is published by Yale University Press at 19.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing is 2.75.