These low hounds were certainly known about in England, probably coming over from France after the Conquest. Several families of Norman descent, such as the Earls of Shrewsbury, have St. Hubert, or the synonymous white Talbot hound, on their coat of arms.
One imaginative alternative theory even has the Basset’s
origins set in England claiming that they were bred by commoners as a way to evade
the Saxon Charter of the Forest and the later Norman
Forest Laws. These draconian laws prohibited everyone
other than the Crown and aristocratic landowners from hunting.
This theory claims that by breeding such a low, bent-legged,
and seemingly ‘deformed’ hound they avoided the cruel
mutilation inflicted on commoners’ dogs in order to prevent
them from being used to hunt.
But as George Johnston writes in his authoritative, and in my opinion never surpassed book about the breed, The Basset Hound (1968), this theory seems very unlikely, as Bassets were recorded in France as early as 700AD, long predating any such laws.
Also, it seems to me extremely fanciful that the forest
wardens, or any other law enforcers, would be so gullible as
to be fooled for one moment by this comic ruse.
There are written records of exchanges of hounds between England and France. In 1305, Edward, the first Prince of Wales, sent his cousin, Louis X of France, ‘some of our low-legged hare-hounds from Wales’
In the fifteenth century there were Cornish Hounds, which were described as ‘heavily built and very short-legged, with long ears and deep voices’ It is very likely that these were introduced from over the Channel by visiting Bretons.
Later in 1598, Shakespeare describes the Basset hound
perfectly when he writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind
So flew’d, so sanded; and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee’d, and dew-lapp’d like Thessalian Bulls;
Slow in persuit, but match’d in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla’d to nor cheerd with horn.
It is interesting to note that the Basset’s melodious voice was a distinctive feature even then. The word ‘sanded’ means mottled and the dewlaps are the folds of skin under the hound’s throat. It seems that in England they were used to hunt in packs - the chasse a courre. Later still, Bassets spread to the new colonies in America. We know that President George Washington, a keen huntsman, owned a couple which were given to him by the Marquis de la Fayette.