This section is from the book "A History And Description Of The Modern Dogs Of Great Britain And Ireland. (Non-Sporting Division)", by Rawdon Briggs Lee. Also available from Amazon: A History And Description Of The Modern Dogs Of Great Britain And Ireland, Non-Sporting Division.
By the Romans and some others he was abased by the purposes to which he was put, for I do not believe he was ever intended as a hunting dog, or for the purpose of fighting with much more powerful beasts than himself. It has been said that King James I. loosed a powerful mastiff against a lion, to the discomfiture of the former, and a kennel companion met a like fate. But a third dog did so much better, worsting his antagonist, that the King said, "He that had fought the king of beasts should never fight a meaner creature," and forthwith this good "mastive" became a pensioner on the royal bounty. This is said to have happened in 1604, and about sixteen years later the same monarch prohibited bear-baiting on a Sunday. At this time it was the custom to crop the ears of most of the mastiffs, and in some cases their sterns were shortened likewise.
As I have already hinted, the mastiff was not originally a fighting dog; he was used as a watch and guard, and as such had special legislation given him so far back as the reign of Henry III., when the obnoxious Forest Laws were still in operation. At that time, and ever since William the Conqueror had appeared on the scene, no ordinary individual was allowed to keep a dog within the precincts of the Forests, though a special provision was made for mastiffs kept by farmers and substantial freeholders dwelling therein; indeed, no other dog than a mastiff was allowed to be kept within these precincts. They might keep such dogs for the protection of their houses and stock, provided that such dogs be expeditated according to law. This iniquitous law was carried out by cutting off the claws of the fore feet close to the skin. The operation was performed by "sitting one of the fore feet upon a piece of wood eight inches thick and a foot square, and with a mallet, setting a chisel of two inches broad upon the three claws of his fore feet, and at one blow cutting them clean off. And this expeditating (by some called rrmbling or lawing of dogs) ought to be looked after by the caretaker of the forest every third year".
Dr. Caius, so well known and so often quoted by writers on canine matters, ought not to be omitted here, as he flourished about 1550, when little was said about the dog, although it was more valued during his period than it had been earlier. He says, "the mastiff or ban dog is vast, huge, stubborn, ugly, and eagre, of a heavy and burdensome body, and therefore but of little swiftness, terrible and frightful to behold, and more fierce and fell than any Arcadian cur, notwithstanding they are said to have their generation from the valiant lion. They are called Villatica, because they are appointed to watch and keep out-of-the-way farm places. ..... They are serviceable against the fox and badger, to drive wild and tame swine out of meadows, etc, and to bait and take the bull by the ear when occasion requireth. For it is a kind of dog capable of courage violent and valiant, striking fear into the hearts of man, and standing in fear of no man, and no weapon will make him shrink or abridge his boldness".
Caius goes on to say these dogs are trained to bait the bear and other "cruel beasts" without "any collar to defend their throats," and oftentimes they train them up in fighting and wrestling a man, who having for a safeguard either a pikestaff, a club, or a sword, and by using them to such exercises as these, the dogs become more sturdy and strong." Here the duties of the mastiff appear to have been of a varied character, if not altogether a pleasant one, and it would be a dog to be avoided by the general public.
Conrad Heresbach, of Cleves on the Rhine, who flourished, as the school books say, about the middle of the sixteenth century, he being born in 1509 and dying in 1576, in his book of Husbandry, translated into English by Barnaby Goodge, calls the mastiff "the ban dog for the house. Such a one should have a large and mighty body, a great and shrill voice, that both with his barking he may discover and with his sight dismay the thief; yea, not being seen, with the horror of his voice put him to flight. His stature must neither be too long nor too short, but well set; his head great, his eyes sharp and fiery, either brown or grey; his lippes blackish, neither turning up nor hanging too much down; his mouth black and wide; his neather jaw fat, and coming out on either side of it a fang appearing more outward than his other teeth; his upper teeth, even with his neather, not hanging too much over, sharp and hidden with his lips; his countenance like a lion; his breast great and shag-haired; his shoulders broad, his legs big, his tail short, his feet very great. His disposition must be neither too gentle nor too curt, that he must neither fawn upon a thief nor flee upon his friends; very waking, no gadder abroad nor lavish of his mouth, barking without cause; neither make it any matter though he be not swift, for he is but to tight at home, and to give warning to the enemy".
Whether some of our modern breeders have endeavoured to produce an animal similar to that described by Conrad Heresbach one cannot tell, but from the "very great feet" often seen nowadays, and the decided slowness in their paces of others, it might be thought a return to the dog as described in the middle of the seventeenth century had been sought to be brought about. Certainly I have seen prize winning modern mastiffs that would, from sheer inability, not be "gadders abroad".
To come to modern times a huge leap of over many centuries must be made, but before actually entering upon a description of the race as it is at present, an omission would be caused were the Lyme Hall mastiffs to be omitted. It has been said that at the seat of the Leghs at Lyme Hall, in Cheshire, a strain of mastiffs has been kept intact for many years. This is, however, not the case. On a recent visit to the ancient residence I found but about seven mastiffs present, and these were of a very inferior character in every way.