There is much controversy surrounding the history and development of the bulldog. Some cynologists and naturalists like Sydenham Edwards believed the bulldog is a product of the mixing of mastiffs and pugs. Others think bulldogs and mastiffs simply have a common ancestor. There is also a theory that the bulldog is a descendent of the Alaunt which, according to a 1632 dictionary, was a mastiff-like dog that worked alongside butchers to manage oxen.
In 1576, Cambridge author Johannes Caius wrote the first book of dogs that does not include the bulldog by name. However, he does describe Mastive (mastiff) or Bandogge as a vastly large, stubborn, ugly dog with a heavy body that was used to bait bulls. Things get even murkier when you consider the title mastiff was applied to all large- and massive-sized dogs. Additionally, Bandog was a term applied to any dogs that were kept in bonds.
Adding to the confusion are Roman historians that talked about the fighting dogs of Britain (pugnace britannicii) as broad-mouth dogs that, along with the Greek and Molossian dogs, appeared to be the ancestor of the mastiff and bulldog. Apparently, the Romans liked these dogs so much that they exported them in large numbers from Britain to Rome to use in sports that were held in the amphitheater.
All historians are in agreement, however, that bulldogs got their name from their profession as bull baiters. They were used to bait, guard, and control bulls both for sport and food. Bull baiting was a popular pastime for noblemen and royalty of the middle ages. However, butchers also baited bulls out of the belief that doing so caused the meat to be more tender and nutritious. This belief was so prevalent that butchers who tried to sell bull meat from animals that were not baited first were penalized and the meat considered unsuitable for consumption.
The first time the bulldog was considered a separate breed from the mastiff was in 1631 when San Sebastian of Spain wrote to his friend, George Wellingham of London, asking him to send a good “Mastive” dog, alcohol, and a few bulldogs. Historians consider this definite proof that the two breeds were developing separately. Back then it was common place to cross breed mastiffs with bandogges and other breeds. It was just a matter of time before the definite shape, size, and coloring of the bulldog formed and became recognizable. The majority of the breeding occurred in Sheffield, Birmingham, and London.
The 1800 edition of the Cynographia Britannica by Sydenham Edwards contains a description of the qualities of bulldogs that lived during that time. They are described as having a round head and body, full muzzle, short ears, a wide chest, and muscular limbs. The most striking feature was the dog’s underbite that uniformly projected beyond the upper lip.
For a short time, there was a theory that the bulldog originated in Spain. In 1900, an Englishman by the name of John Proctor purchased a bronze medallion in Paris from A. Provendier who was a well-known French bulldog breeder. On the face of the medallion was a picture of a bulldog whose ears were cropped. The medallion was dated 1625, made by an artist name Cazalla, and contained the inscription “Dogue de Burgos Espana” or Burgos Mastiff. The dog was large, had a big skull, an underbite, and a push-backed nose.
Between 1840 and 1873, five different men imported bulldogs from Spain that had short faces, bulldog tails, and were labeled pure-bred Spanish bulldogs. They all looked like the dog in the bronze medallion. This “evidence” led the editor of “The Stock Keeper” George R. Krehl to come up with the theory that bulldogs originated in Spain.
Of course, historians know that the theory cannot possibly hold water because bulldogs had been shipped to Spain from England by Philip II in the 1500s. Additionally, the baiting of bulls and bears had been popular in England as early as 1154 and the descriptions of the dogs used during that time period match what is known about the ancestors of mastiffs and bulldogs.
After a heated debate, the practice of bull baiting was terminated by the House of Commons in 1802. Though illegal, it continued for a few decades underground until about 1835. With the decline of this pastime, the number of bulldogs fell as well. However, dog fighting took hold of the public, which led to a revival of the pure-bread bulldog breed. This time, though, many breeders began crossbreeding them with terriers because they believed the progeny would be better fighters.
Eventually, though, dog fighting was outlawed as well. However, the bulldog managed to survive the elimination of its two main professions to become the well-loved pets they are today.