History is riddled with enigmas, and Horsley, as well as being in possession of Sir Walter Raleigh’s head, boasts another in the mysterious personage of Dame Juliana Berners.  In Chambers Biographical Dictionary, her birthdate is given as 1388, and she is described as an English Prioress and writer, ascribing her works as:  Treatyse perteynynge  to Hawkynge, Hyntynge, Fysshynge and Coate and the Blasyng of Armys,  all forming part of The Boke of St. Albans (1486.) (1.).  The Dictionary poses a question: Was she the daughter or granddaughter of Sir James Berners, one of Richard II’s favourites, who was beheaded in 1388  (Lord of the Manor of West Horsley) and whose stained glass memorial window is in St. Mary’s Church? Writers in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries have questioned her authorship of these works, and even her existence. It is a challenge to unravel the mysteries surrounding her life and authorship, but certainly worthwhile as it is part of Horsley heritage.


Historical research is especially rewarding and stimulating when sources close to the lifetime of the subject are studied.  The first edition of the Boke of St. Albans contains the following: ‘ Explicit Dame Julyans Barnes in her boke on huntyn.’  It was printed in St. Albans, in 1486, apparently by an unknown schoolmaster. In the famous reprint of the ‘Boke’  by Wynkyn de Worde, the colophon reads:  ‘Explicit Dame Julyans Bernes doctyne in her boke on huntyn.’ This is the edition where Juliana’s  Treatyse on Fysshinge with an Angle first appears.  (Apparently a later edition was once in the possession of the Duke of Roxburghe.)  Three celebrated woodcuts appear in the 1496 edition of the Boke. There are men hawking with lively greyhounds; a lion stalking a bird, and a bevy or ‘sege’ of birds, as Dame Juliana insisted that they should be called.  But the woodcut pertaining to the Treatyse of Fysshynge is the most famous, depicting a rather sad looking countryman angling.  The Hunting book contains a long list of collective nouns, such as ‘a gaggle of geese,’ ‘a blast of hunters,’ ‘a subtlety of sergeants,’ and a ‘superfluity of nuns.’ (Reprints of the books are widely available today.) The following excerpt seems imbued with the personality of this spirited medieval lady, and with a plea for conservation which would be praised today.

            ‘Also, you must not be too greedy in catching your said game as taking too much at one time, which you may easily do in every point as this present treatise shows you. Which could easily be the occasion of destroying your own sport and other men’s also.  Also when you have sufficient mess you should cover no more at that time. Also you shall help yourself to nourish the game in all that you may, and to destroy such things as are devourers of it. And all those that do as this rule shall have the blessing of God and St. Peter.  Which he grants them that with his precious blood he bought.’ (2).


 A picture of Juliana begins to emerge in the 16th-century writing of John Bale (1495-1563,) (3.), Raphael Holinshed (c.1587) (4.)  and Gervaise Markham (1568-1637) (5.).  All these authors were writing close to the lifetime of Juliana:  She is described as a very beautiful lady of great spirit, who loved masculine exercise and was so thoroughly skilled in hawking, hunting and fishing that she could produce treatises on these sports. To quote Holinshed, she was: A gentlewoman endowed with excellent giftes, both of bodey and minde, delighting greatly herself in those exercises and pastimes.’   Her learning and fine accomplishments are praised, and she would have spoken fluent French.

Another impressive contribution was found in the fly leaf of an edition of the Boke of St. Albans, William Burton (1575-1645), a Leicestershire historian, which is dated 1610.  It reads: ‘ This booke was made by Lady Julian (sic) Berners, daughter of Sir James Berners of Berners-Roding in Essex and Sister to Richard Lord Berners. She was Prioress of Sopwell, a Nunnery neere St. Albans, in which Abby of St. Albans this was first printed.’ (6.).  She is identified by these 16th-century writers as the daughter of Sir James Berners and the sister of Sir Richard Berners, who does appear in the West Horsley Berners family tree. After the execution of Sir James, in 1388, mentioned by several of the above writers, the young king Richard II insisted that the West Horsley estate should not be taken from his widow and family.  Juliana may have become a Ward of Court, but in any case, her social position would have ensured that she took part in the country sports which were then so fashionable. There are pictures in many  Books of the Hours of the period, for example, the Taymouth Houres,  showing women pursuing such activities.   There is no doubt with any of the early writers, about Dame Juliana’s authorship about the Hunting, Hawking and Fishing sections, though questions arise about the Heraldry and Armoury, which it was felt might have been from the work of Nicholas Upton.


Dame Juliana is described by most of the writers quoted above, as Prioress of Sopwell Abbey, a Convent or Nunnery in Hertfordshire, which was founded under the Benedictine Order in 1140, and was a cell of St. Albans Abbey.  By her day, the order had become much less strict, and in between periods of devotion, in this pleasant wooded district, the nuns might have been able to engage in the field sports which women of wealthy families enjoyed. The ruins of the Convent still stand, near the River Ver, where Juliana might have perfected the art of angling.  Another historic anomaly, which frustrates research into this part of her history is the loss of Sopwell Priory records from 1435-1480, the period when Dame Juliana would have been Prioress.  The rank of a Prioress would resemble that of an Abbot, and a lady of her rank would exercise almost manorial influence.  She would supervise all the activities of the Priory, such as: religious observance; washing and cooking; raising vegetables and grain for the community; producing wine and honey’; providing medical care; providing education for the novices; spinning and embroidery and illuminating manuscripts. Wealthier nuns enjoyed privileges: it is intriguing to compare Juliana with Chaucer’s Prioress, Madame Eglantine, who was travelling on her pilgrimage to Canterbury, richly clad in elegant gowns and jewellery, with her ‘smalle dogges’ (7.). There is conjecture as to why Juliana might have chosen to enter a Nunnery;  was it through disappointment, and did she flee to field sports to avoid love?  ‘From an Abbess disposed to turn author, says Thomas Warton, we might more reasonably have expected a manual of meditation for the closet, or select rules for making salves or distilling strong water.’ (8.).  But the diversions of the field were not considered inconsistent with the life of a religious lady of her rank.


The History of Printing (1810) (9.) states:  ‘ It is plain Julyans Bernes wrote the book on Hunting.’ Joseph Haslewood, in 1811, published a facsimile of the Boke on Huntyng (10.), he examined her pedigree and history in some detail and places her in the West Horsley Berners family, acknowledging her authorship of part of the book. The section on heraldry and armoury were credited to another author, and it was suggested that part of Dame Juliana’s work might be a translation from French.  The Manning and Bray history of Surrey (1804-1814,) drawing on earlier sources, note that Sir James Berners of West Horsley Manor: ‘is said to be the father of Juliana Berners  (sometimes called Barnes.’ (11.).

As the nineteenth century progressed, doubts about Dame Juliana’s history begin to emerge.  Women did not participate greatly in field sports and were not encouraged to do so in the Victorian period, which might have contributed to such opinions.   Writers in the late nineteenth and modern period comment that there is no such person as Juliana in the family tree of the West Horsley Manor (de) Berners family, but daughters were rarely identified by name on such pedigrees.  It is also worth noting that spelling of names was inconsistent in the Medieval and Tudor periods, as well as the scantiness of records, and as far as queries about  the title ‘Dame’ go, it was the more graceful equivalent of our ugly ‘Ms.’  Dame Juliana refers to herself using this title in the Book of Hunting.

In 1881, In an introduction to the Boke of St. Alans facsimile William Blades wrote: ‘She probably lived at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and she possibly compiled from existing manuscripts some  rhymes on hunting.’ (12.).  Blades has arguably influenced later writers, along with a slight condescension towards the medieval period, and the idea that a woman of that period could write a book on field sports. Andrew Herd, in his history of fly fishing, finds her case wanting, debating spelling differences and the elaboration on the references to ‘Dame Juliana’ at the end of the book on hunting in the 1486 edition of the Boke of St. Albans.  Herd does admit that, although he is unconvinced of her existence, there is no real evidence to the contrary.   It is not too prejudiced to say that when a fair sample of research is examined, the versions of earlier writers, working so much closer to the life of Dame Juliana, and imbued with more understanding of the medieval period, would appear more convincing.  At present, with the focus on women in history, Juliana is gaining quite a following, with ‘Pinterest,’ the social website examining her case and offering illustrations. Although there is scepticism, there is an inherently wistful desire to believe in her. All the reprints acknowledge her authorship on the title page, and angling clubs in America are named after her.  This historical debate is a fascinating contribution to West Horsley Place history, and Dame Juliana should have the last word:

                                              Bestys of Venery

                        ‘Where so ear ye fare, by fryth or by fell:

                        My dere chylde take heed how Trystam you tell.

                        How many manere bestys of venry there were:

                        Listen to your Dame, and she shall you leere.’    (13.)

June Davey. 



  1. . Chambers Biographical Dictionary, New York: Larousse Kingfisher Chambers, 1997
  2. Dame Juliana Berners, A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, Oxford: Benediction Classics, 2007. p. 51
  3. John Bale, Catalogue of Great Britain’s Illustrious Writers, (Latin, 1548) translated and published 1902 by R.M. Poole & M. Bateson
  4. R. Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, (first printed 1587) Nabu Press Open History. pp.204-208
  5. Gervase Markham, The Gentleman’s Academe, or The Boke of St. Albans (1595) University of Oxford Text Archive. http://ota.ox.uk/tcp
  6. William Burton, Manuscript in Boke of St. Albans, 1610. in A Descriptive Catalogue of books in the Library of John Holmes. Norwich: Metchett, Stevenson & Metchett, 1828. https://book.google.uk. William+Burton
  7. Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue, The Canterbury Tales, London: The Folio Society, 1998
  8. Thomas Warton, A History of English Poetry (1871) Vol. 111. p.139. http://books.google..co.uk/Thomas Warton+Juliana+Berners. p.139
  9. History of Printing, T. Ames, W. Herbert & Rev. T. Dibdin, London: Miller, 1810.,
  10. Joseph Haslewood, Boke of St. Albans by Dame Juliana Berners (Wynken de Worde, 1496) with literary researches by Joseph Haslewood in 1810.  New York: Abercrombie & Fitch.  https://catalog.hathitrust.org.Record 001160951
  11. Rev. Owen Manning & William Bray, History of the Antiquities of the County of Surrey, London: John White for John Nicholas & Son, 1804-1814, p. 38
  12. William Blades, Introduction to the Boke of St. Albans in Facsimile, London: Elliott Stock, 1881, p.13
  13. Dame Juliana Berners, Boke of St. Albans, Huntyng. 1881 edition, reprinted in Great Britain by Amazon.